Retro Review: Hoop Dreams

This review was originally published on on May 17, 2005

People always say to me, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me.” Well, I should’ve said back, “if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me.”

Back in 1994, a documentary was released that changed the way that documentaries are viewed. Arthur Agee and William Gates are two of the top 8th graders from the Chicago inner-city who are both recruited to play at St. Joseph’s High School. As the former high school of Isiah Thomas, St. Joe’s is a perennial state power made up of predominantly white kids. The story that unfolds is greater than the filmmakers could have ever predicted. Instead of being a basketball movie, Hoop Dreams turns into a beautiful portrait of two poverty-stricken families who have all sorts of problems. Both Arthur and William have issues with their father – William’s father is all but absent in his life and Arthur’s father might be the most disappointing father’s in movie history. The most memorable scene in the entire movie is a scene where Arthur’s father buys crack within eyesight of Arthur who was playing streetball at the time.
Hoop Dreams is great because every kid can relate to having dreams of playing a professional sport. As that dream starts to fade, priorities fade. The drama that both families go through is interesting and engaging. William becomes a father while still in high school. He struggles to attempt to pass the ACT test. He misses two free throws that would’ve clinched a playoff victory. He undergoes knee problem after knee problem. His brother Curtis, who played college basketball, tries to live his dreams through him. Arthur’s father struggles with drug problems and leaves the family more than once. His mother has problem with money and even gets the power to their apartment gets cut off. His family isn’t able to make payments at the private school so he gets kicked out of school and has to transfer to a city school. He needs to take summer school nearly every year of high school in order to graduate.

Video & Sound
Hoop Dreams was one of the first documentaries to be shot on video. The movie was released theatrically in a widescreen aspect, but it is presented here in the original 1.33:1 format. The video quality looks very average, but it’s much improved from my nearly 10-year old copy on VHS. Considering the source format, this is probably as good as the film ever could possibly look. The sound is also presented in the original 2.0 Dolby track. While it’s not as fancy as your new Matrix dvd, it fits the movie just fine.

Criterion dvd’s are always worth the extra schillings. The best extra feature is the commentary featuring Arthur Agee and William Gates. Hearing their side of the story is more than interesting. If you are a fan of this movie, listening to this commentary track should almost be required. Both William and Arthur have wonderful stories and different takes on how things are presented in the scene. One example of this would be when William talks to Coach Pingatore after the season. Ping, as he’s called, tells William he had a good career but not a great career. Williams then points out that he’s second in all-time scoring to Isiah and first in 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage. Both William and Arthur have matured and are able to look at their teenage years through a more objective eye. This really is my favorite commentary track I’ve ever listened to.
The next commentary features the filmmakers – Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. It’s very interesting because they talk about choosing the two families along with the joys and difficulties to become almost a member of the families. They realize that they got lucky the story turned out the way it did, but they also had done their research. You can tell this is a very personal piece to each of them. They talk for the whole three hours and I’d be willing to bet they could talk for three hours more.
One feature that’s really worth watching is the Siskel and Ebert piece. I never realized it, but Hoop Dreams was Roger Ebert’s choice for the greatest movie of the 90’s. It was the number one movie of 1994 (the year Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show was released) for both of them. In the feature, they review the movie. Later on, they talk about the drama over Hoop Dreams being left off of both the Best Picture and the best Documentary nominees.
Also included is a 40-some page booklet feature reviews and essays about the movie. My favorite essay is one written by the filmmakers which is kind of a “where are they now” piece.

Closing Thoughts
If this movie were fiction, it probably wouldn’t be believable. The movie runs nearly three hours, but the time seems to fly. I watched this movie on Saturday afternoon then watched the Arthur/William commentary for the whole movie the next day. Monday, I wanted to watch it again, so I watched the filmmakers’ commentary. It truly is one of the greatest movies of the 90’s and the fact that it didn’t win the best documentary Oscar in 1994 is truly one of the greatest crimes in the history of the Academy Awards. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy this movie. If you are a basketball fan and you haven’t seen this movie, you are robbing yourself of one of the greatest movie watching experiences ever.

Overall Scores
Movie – 10
Video & Sound – 4
Extras – 8
Overall – 9

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