Hoop Dreams (1994)

Hoop dreams 1994 film review

Hoop Dreams (1994) Directed by Steve James

The ineffable poignancy of this groundbreaking, epic and uplifting documentary should not only be remembered as an essential piece of American cinema of the 1990s but also as one of the most truthful dictates of the modern American experience. Hoop Dreams is one of those projects that when you imagine it in pre-production you would never believe it would be a thriving documentary that has more ambition than any other film made in 1994 and yet that is exactly what it manages to achieve.

With a monumental nearly 3 hours of film, the intrepid filmmakers behind the organic ingenuity of this documentary defy the limits of the journalistic and television format by shaping our conception of documentary configurations in cinema with unprecedented, modernly visionary authenticity. Steve James directs this maelstrom of visceral natural sensations of life experience and produces with Frederick Marx this essential work of American documentary filmmaking. Both filmmakers approach life with a directness and instinctive human empathy that is never disturbed by the mechanical manipulation of pseudo-documentary filmmaking devices and schemes, imperatively stepping away from that territory, and settling into the raw objectivity of reality no matter how shaky it may be for their dramatic purposes.

Hoop Dreams makes a stentorian echo with the multiplicity of its forms, not only in the polysemy of its theme inherent to the socio-cultural aspects that are manifested, but also in the robust cinematographic enunciation that it has with a format so improper to what we consider cinema. When you first see the textures of Hoop Dreams you would think that you are about to see a cheap, anti-aesthetic and scratchy television documentary that belongs to any medium but cinema, however, the profound principles, the incisive editing and the legitimate exposition of identifiable emotions, make it one of the most cinematic documentaries in the history of cinema.

Cinema is pure when it uses only its images, and the seventh art is a universal language when it epitomizes our mother tongue with the poetry of our human physiognomy; Hoop Dreams is dingy, dull and bumpy in its appearance, yet its idiolect is exclusively that of cinema, and it relies with graceful dignity on the veristic evocation of emotions. Clearly it is a film that generates a rich debate about cinematic specificity, a discussion that added to the complexity of its documentary realism makes it all the more superlative to watch.

This heartbreaking yet hopeful documentary presents the lives of two hearty and courageous African-American young men, both coming from the same precarious socioeconomic conditions in the United States in the 90’s, who struggle to get ahead through the opportunities that athletic scholarships can give them. On this road of falling and rising, they must not only do their best to achieve their dreams in the competitive world of basketball, but also find a psychological balance between their family and student problems. William Gates and Arthur Agee are the two protagonists of their own lives put on camera and immortalized forever in this documentary that does nothing more than absorb us with the honesty of its images. Probably the most ostensible and biggest difference between narrative cinema and documentary, apart from the most obvious, is the filmic construction of what is being portrayed and transmitted, in the former the whole story is constructed a priori and in the latter it is molded a posteriori.

When you try to capture life in its most natural state, the volatility and above all unpredictability of life itself is to be expected, and consequently getting the film to remain as continuous and immersive comes solely from the filmmakers ability and competence to control the swirling beauty of life. In Hoop Dreams, that very thing was achieved; it is a triumph of documentary balance and a master class in syntactical composition that moves in rhythm with the fluctuating lives of the two young men.

Subtly critical and subliminally didactic, the film’s colossal force of social commentary is never conveyed with imperious indiscretion. Part of what makes the synchronized manifestation of human emotion intricate with the thematic depth is the meticulous dismantling of the usually unfair modus operandi of athletic scholarships. But especially that student regulation seen holistically in the film’s sociological emphasis, makes us as an audience intellectually take the social commentary to a more analytical space, more critical of purely social gestures. Many falsely describe this film as ”the American experience,” when in reality, we all know that the African American experience is very dissimilar, antithetical to that of whites in America, hence we should refer to this film as ”the African American experience”. Viewed with that univocal perspective, the film expands its critical rigor and the themes become infinitely descriptive in every tragic, depressing and iniquitous situation that takes place in this story. For an average African American in the 1990’s relying on the athletic scholarship is the only light in the tunnel to get out of the ghetto, as opposed to an average white person where simply studying will get you ahead or simply your economic position will get you to the top. The levels of emotions at work in the film are so intense that they leave you breathless analogous to the people you see experiencing those strong and uncontrollable feelings.

It is impossible not to feel while watching Hoop Dreams, after the long hours and every minute of tension we experience with these poetic personalities, we develop an unbreakable connection, a bond we share even after the end credits. Even as I write this review I say to myself, ”I hope these two feisty characters are doing well in life, wherever they are.”

Hoop Dreams is one of the greatest sports movies, where the sport itself is not interpreted as a game or as a tangible, physical exercise but as an urgent struggle to survive and do what you love most in this world. The editing of this film took three grueling years, and with good reason, because the incisions that are seen feel sharp precisely to hit us at the right moments and leave us heartbroken and excited at the same time. The gigantic end result is one of the most satisfyingly solid documentaries I have ever seen.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.