Hoop Dreams (1994)

casey Hoop Dreams isn’t just about basketball, it’s about America. And race, class, family, and many other things.

brooke Including basketball.

casey Lots of basketball. The 1994 documentary follows two young, black Chicago boys, William and Arthur, who are recruited from playground ball to play for St. Joseph’ High School, a suburban powerhouse and predominantly white school. The boys’ basketball fortunes quickly diverge: William becomes a varsity star tutored by wealthy boosters, while Arthur languishes on the freshman team and struggles academically until family finances force him to transfer back to a public school. The movie follows the pair through high school as they deal with a variety of issues, including injuries, poverty, drug-addicted family members, pregnant girlfriends, and basketball, giving us a glimpse into their lives with minimal narration or commentary.

brooke The seeming lack of structure from the documentarians gives Hoop Dreams an air or unpredictability that a lot of movies, documentaries and otherwise, don’t have. You don’t know what will happen with Arthur and William, and you’re tempted many times through the first half to just Google them and find out if they make it.

casey It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating to watch. In one scene Arthur and his family return to St. Joseph’s to settle his tuition debt after the affluent school refuses to release his transcripts for college applications. We see the white counselor explain that the family owes thousands because the scholarship had been rescinded when Arthur quit the team. And, he adds without irony, the school depends on tuition to survive. His mother responds that the school didn’t need that tuition when Arthur was a basketball prospect, and when he didn’t develop as hoped the school simply let him fail. The counselor is unmoved, and Arthur’s family is compelled to pay the debt he incurred for not living up to expectations.

brooke More narration might have helped the movie along in some places, but letting it unfold naturally gives Arthur and William the chance to speak for themselves. It also allows for a lot of outside information to come from family and friends, people who know and love the boys.

casey Even though the film deals with some difficult stuff, it’s not hard to watch. William and Arthur are forced to shoulder some unfair burdens, but one some level they’re always goofy kids. Arthur in particular gets a nice redemption arc, as his team makes a run to the state finals in the movie’s final act.

brooke It’s humanizing in a way that few documentaries manage. The filmmakers initially aimed for a story of young boys hoping to become NBA players, but they ended up with a powerful portrayal of the sacrifice and minutiae of everyday life. Arthur’s family struggles are as intriguing as William’s path to stardom. In the end, I cheered more for Arthur’s mom graduating with a nursing degree than for any basketball game.

casey I thought Hoop Dreams worked on so many levels. It’s a political statement about the intersection between race, class, education, and sports, and, more than anything, it’s a well-told story. Hoop Dreams is sweet, tragic, uncertain, and joyful. Just like real life.


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