NYFF32: Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams”

Posted by Gabriel Arce-Rollins on 6.5.2012

"People tell me: When you make the pro’s don’t forget me. And I’m like: OK, but if I don’t make it don’t forget about me." —William Gates

For every Lebron James or Amare Stoudemire there’s a William Gates and an Arthur Agee. If it's become a truism that 10,000 basketball players fall by the wayside so a star can be born, it's in no small part thanks to Hoop Dreams (NYFF '94). The 1994 cinéma vérite classic follows Agee and Gates from their recruitment as pre-teens on the cracked concrete of Chicago’s outdoor courts, through their full high-school careers and the immediate aftermath. The two young men’s fortunes criss-cross on and off the court as family pressures, poverty and injury throw up a series of obstacles that they navigate with uneven success. Besides being a damningly clear portrayal of the meat market like atmosphere of student-athletics, Hoop Dreams weaves a picture of American urban life as a patchwork held together, just barely, by everything leading up to ‘the big game’.

Tonight at 6:30pm director Steve James, producer Frederick Marx and cinematographer Peter Gilbert are joined by subject Arthur Agee and New York Knicks star Baron Davis to present a film that the International Documentary Association voted G.O.A.T. (that’s greatest of all time, for all the non-hoopers).

"Nobody cares about you. You’re supposed to be selling drugs and mugging old women," says Spike Lee, in a cameo speaking appearance at a basketball camp. Steve James' handling of his two protagonists shows a different story. He gives them autonomy to explain themselves in their own words and in their own worlds, with the intimacy that comes with five years spent shooting in their homes. The lowest moments, like when the lights are shut off at the Agee house, pass without melodrama. The moments of joy, like Arthur cheering his mother’s graduation from a nursing course in a nearly empty lunchroom full of folding chairs are truly poignant.

So often reduced to a stereotype, these young, black basketball players are by turns reflective, proud and conflicted about the position that their skills have put them in. If anything, their stories demonstrate that the people around them really do care. Probably too much so. Coaches, scouts, friends, family and parents are so invested in Arthur and William that they lack the distance to give them guidance. As we follow their playing careers (there is almost no narration other than during the high-school basketball games), we see them each realize that, despite all the adulation, they are truly on their own. This realization, subtly reinforced by the film’s simple but powerful structuring makes for a true coming of age story. Each section is introduced by the class year, e.g. Freshman, as the process of maturity becomes a ticking clock—4, 3, 2, 1—to "making it," whatever that may mean.

The stories told here were an obvious influence on Lee’s 1998 He Got Game; he even stole a scene or two and Agee appeared in a cameo role. But Hoop Dreams is more than a basketball movie. Like the best work of Frederick Wiseman, it is comprehensive. Because each character is a part of a system that only the audience can see in its entirety, their inability to shake their own dreams about themselves and the young men they worship, even as they can see them being dashed, becomes tragic. As Public Enemy rapped, true game is "seeing the game behind the game." Hoop Dreams shows it.

Combine tonight's screening with a meal at Indie Food and Wine in our Film Center with our unbeatable Dinner and a Movie deal for just $25! And make sure to check out the rest of the 50 Years of the New York Film Festival lineup, including works by Olivier Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh, and next Tuesday's screening of Italian filmmaker Gianni Amelio's masterful Lamerica, a perfect companion to our upcoming Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series. 

Below is a list of films that played alongside Hoop Dreams at NYFF '94:
Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1994
Shown with Michelle’s Third Novel, Karryn de Cinque, Australia

Bullets Over Broadway
Woody Allen, USA, 1994

Hoop Dreams
Peter Gilberg, Steve James, and Frederick Marx, USA, 1994

Amateur
Hal Hartley, USA/France, 1994
Shown with Suspicious, David Koepp, USA

Avant-Garde Visions
The Cloud Door, Mani Kaul, Germany/India, 1994
Whispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia/Germany, 1993
Shown with Roig, Teresa de Pelegri, Spain

Caro Diario
Nanni Moretti, Italy/France, 1994
Shown with Attempt at an Opening, Luc Moullet, France

Chungking Express
Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1994
Shown with Eating Out, Pål Sletaune, Norway

Cold Water (L’eau froide)
Olivier Assayas, France, 1994
Shown with Jump, Melissa Painter, USA

A Confucian Confusion
Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1994

Crumb
Terry Zwigoff, USA, 1994. Directed by
Shown with Shut Up Jerk!, Craig McGillivray, USA
Also, Spot-Check, Gerhard Ertl and Sabine Hiebler, Austria

Ed Wood
Tim Burton, USA, 1994

Exotica
Atom Egoyan, Canada, 1994
Shown with All the Kind People, Erlend Eriksson, UK

Ladybird Ladybird
Ken Loach, UK, 1994
Shown with Cross Examination, Lori Hiris, USA

Martha
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1973 (NYFF Retrospective.)
Shown with Mrs. Matisse, Debra Solomon, USA

Postcards from America
Steve McLean, USA, 1994
Shown with The Salesman and Other Adventures, Hannah Weyer, USA

Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge)
Krzysztof Kieslowski, Switzerland/France/Poland, 1994 
Shown with Bête de Scène, Bernard Nissille, France

The Red Lotus Society
Stan Lai, Taiwan, 1994

Sátántangó
Béla Tarr, Hungary/Germany/Switzerland, 1993

See How They Fall
Jacques Audiard, France, 1994
Shown with A Pair of Boots, John Cassavetes, USA

The Silences of the Palace
Moufida Tlatli, Tunisia/France, 1994

Strawberry and Chocolate
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, Cuba/Mexico/Spain, 1993
Shown with Catalina, Tommy O’Haver, USA

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
Steven M. Martin, USA, 1993
Shown with Carnival, Ondrej Rudavsky, USA

Through the Olive Trees
Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994 

To Live
Zhang Yimou, China 1994

To the Starry Island
Park Kwang-su, South Korea, 1994
Shown with Home, David Ofek, Israel

The Troubles We’ve Seen (Veillées d’armes)
Marcel Ophuls, France, 1994

Wild Reeds
André Téchiné, France, 1994
Shown with Crawl, Lara Shapiro, USA

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