That I’m able to write these words as a working documentary filmmaker already speaks to the broad and overwhelming impact of what Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert pulled off in 1994 with Hoop Dreams. Their film uncovered the dynamic storytelling and commercial possibilities of narrative nonfiction and remains vastly influential in how we conceive of, create, and distribute documentary films. Still, twenty years after the movie surprisingly broke through at Sundance and changed the game, how does it hold up? Hoop Dreams has been minted and reminted as an essential touchstone and called one of the greatest sports films ever made, but does it remain a vital work of cinema?
The first time I saw Hoop Dreams, I was mesmerized and inspired. A few years earlier, I had been a kid with bad knees and an awkward jump shot, with teenage delusions that I could make it to the NBA. Watching the film on the big screen, I was entranced by the allure my favorite sport had for the two young protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee. By that point, my dreams had turned from hoops to making films, and Hoop Dreams was also a revelation in that regard. That documentaries shot on video could be movies stirred something in me and helped shape my life and career going forward. Meanwhile, seeing William’s and Arthur’s ups and downs on-screen was intensely humbling, and it impressed upon me the power and necessity of nonfiction cinema.
In America, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me had demonstrated the commercial potential of documentaries five years before Hoop Dreams emerged, and MTV’s The Real World had recently pointed to the pop culture allure of “real” people, but it was the epic tale of William and Arthur, as captured and assembled by James and company, that showed the world how sincere, smart, character-driven nonfiction portraiture could “play” for audiences. The filmmakers’ relatable approach made it look almost easy, so adept were they at wringing depth and pathos out of quick, observed exchanges. For twenty years, filmmakers have tried (and usually failed) to conjure similar magic.
At the same time, the fact that the story’s characters are inner-city black kids whose emotional lives are being explored may be the film’s most vital contribution to culture. The movie made nearly eight million dollars at the box office and was seen countless times on television, and every one of its viewers was treated to a portrait that found depth and complexity where most media depictions find hurtful cliche?. There isn’t a better argument for the social value of long-form nonfiction filmmaking than Hoop Dreams. And sports have never been put into such careful context, where the dramatic power of winning and losing is woven into the narrative construction of characters’ lives rather than overwhelming it. Hitting a last-second layup matters, but only because these boys’ dreams register as meaningful, intricate, and real. There’s a reason Roger Ebert called it “the great American documentary.”
The idea for the film came to James in 1985, while he was waiting to shoot hoops at a busy court at Southern Illinois University, where he was a film student. He was apparently so struck by the interactions on the court that he almost immediately reached out to his buddy Marx about a project, with the initial pitch being that they create a thirty-minute short focused on the subculture of a single playground, and on a single player. From there, the film’s other principal collaborators came on board, including Gilbert and Kartemquin Films producers Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal. The plan was to shoot for six months. Instead, they ended up sticking around for more than five years, following Arthur and William from their freshman year at Chicago’s high school basketball powerhouse St. Joseph to their first steps in college.
Trials and tribulations on and off the court abound: Arthur’s struggling parents can’t pay for the tuition at St. Joe’s, and he must forge a new path, while William must contend with high expectations, internal ambivalence, and the pressures of having a young family of his own. The boys’ shared goal is clear: to make it out of the inner city and to the NBA. But the story takes us into incredibly rich emotional territory, as the filmmakers emphasize the ambiguities of real human relationships over simplistic narratives. The fullness of experience is felt; these boys’ dreams become high drama, with the endlessly replenishing metaphor of basketball always adding layers of meaning.
For the purposes of this essay, I watched Hoop Dreams for the first time in nearly two decades, and I was immediately struck by how emphatically it announces itself as a movie in the opening minutes, with highly composed and gorgeously lit frames, action zooms, tracking shots, and a driving score. The film quickly and entertainingly brings the viewer into the inner city of Chicago just as a Hollywood movie might, setting up the discrepancies between the NBA and life in the projects by directly cutting between dream world and dreamers. Creating a big-time narrative feel where story tensions and character motivations are as clear as they’d be in a fictional movie was one of the filmmakers’ most influential gambits, and it still pays off; the opening moments bristle with cinematic urgency and scope.
From there, the film settles into a more conventional documentary approach. There’s a residue of the original, shorter direction the film was going to take that one can sense in the first hour. Expository information is doled out efficiently, with James’s even-tempered voice-over, interviews with the main characters, and quick cuts doing much of the work to explain who the characters are and what they’re about. It’s functional and tight, with a few potent observational moments (an extended shot of the fourteen-year-old Arthur’s searching eyes as he steps onto the court, for example, or the revered St. Joseph coach, Gene Pingatore, tightly holding in his meaty hands a lighter for his signature pipe). There are aesthetic flourishes like slow motion occasionally mixed in, yet there remains a strong sense that the filmmakers are still finding their footing and working as economically as possible as they get deeper into Arthur’s and William’s worlds.
The brisk pace continues through the rest of the first half of the nearly three-hour running time, and while what’s on-screen is almost always captivating, the hyperefficient scene construction sometimes leaves less space for salient, intimate observations. The strategy here is to create depth by way of breadth. The major story twist of Arthur moving to another school from his dream program at St. Joseph is treated with a matter-of-factness that is characteristic of the overall approach. This occurrence was earth-shattering in the way it cleaved Arthur’s trajectory from William’s more stable one, yet the filmmakers reject melodrama in favor of understatement. Story points are never oversold, which makes each micro-movement feel profoundly unmanufactured. The images may not stand out as especially striking, and the editing may seem a little too by-the-numbers at times, but once we reach the ninety-minute mark, we’ve been firmly planted in a real place and uniquely positioned to understand the complexities of these characters’ lives.
Then, almost without warning, the filmmakers execute an extraordinary, unparalleled edit, and the film hits another gear. The tensions between William and Coach Pingatore have started to show when both board a bus to go to a game. The St. Joseph bus is quiet, almost solemn, and the faces are nearly entirely white. Pingatore dominates the frame, instructing his players, “Now, remember, think about the ball game.” Suddenly, we match cut to an identical front-of-the-bus angle on Arthur’s almost all-black transport, whose atmosphere is decidedly less disciplined, Coach Bedford present but silent and clearly not in control. With that one cut, the diverging roads of our two protagonists are made powerfully clear.
Many buzzwords like immersive and present-tense that are applied to the more cinematically ambitious documentaries of today can be used to describe the astonishing second half of Hoop Dreams. Close-ups become more precisely framed, camera movements more noticeably interested in creating spatial depth, and the feeling of scenes happening as we watch more apparent. Nearly every scene is tense and electric, the expository work of the first half paying off brilliantly. Arthur plays a pickup game with his father, and the scene has the cadence and expressive power of an epic showdown, while still maintaining the film’s unfussy style. Later, William and Coach Pingatore have what might be the most bittersweet final scene in documentary history, and the viewer experiences a raw emotional ambiguity that is unique to great nonfiction. In fact, it might be said that by employing narrative strategies from fictional cinema, James showed the distinctive emotional depth possible only in documentary.
What we have, then, is a film that grows up as its characters do. This is not unlike the way Richard Linklater’s masterful Boyhood, which premiered at Sundance the same year that James, Marx, and Gilbert were being honored for Hoop Dreams’s twentieth anniversary, works. By the end of the movie, the boys we’ve come to care so deeply about are young men, and a humble movie about urban basketball has transformed into a vital work of lasting cinema. The film’s freshman-to-senior-year structure couldn’t be more appropriate. By tethering form and filmmaking choices to the turbulent, unpredictable lives of real people, documentaries can become something like living things themselves, growing and breathing and learning as the characters on-screen do. Twenty years after it changed the nonfiction world, Hoop Dreams indeed remains vigorously, forcefully alive.