…are made to be broken, as Arthur Agee and William Gates learned the hard way over the five years their lives on and off the court were filmed.
Filmed by three white guys in Chicago from a script by God, Hoop Dreams is an epic of American life in the here-and-now. It’s about the near-total divorce in our cities between black society and white; about the grind of poverty, by the day and by the year; about the various ways in which the impoverished respond – with courtliness, optimism, self-control or self-loathing – as they see dollars showered in frivolity all about them.
The hope that some of those dollars might float their way drives the people in Hoop Dreams onward; in the simplest terms, the film is about two young black men from the Chicago ghetto, Arthur Agee and William Gates, who are determined at all costs to become players in the National Basketball Association. We learn, in great detail, what the words “at all costs” might mean to such young men. We also learn the somewhat different meanings of those words to their families and friends, to coaches and teachers, to recruiters and broadcasters and the onlooking throng. As the film takes in this very broad sweep of American society, it also works up portraits of Agee and Gates, portraits that are unexpected–breathtaking–in their intimacy. It’s this combination of the panorama with the close-up that makes Hoop Dreams a landmark film–that, and the valor of the film’s subjects, the persistence of its filmmakers, the cunning of that scriptwriter who was working out of sight.
Some background: In 1986, Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert approached a distinguished documentary production company, Kartemquin Films, with a proposal to make a movie about schoolyard basketball players in Chicago. As the trio has since explained – with a laugh – they were envisioning a half-hour program for public television. Then, touring the playgrounds with a freelance scout named Earl Smith, they met Arthur Agee, a 14-year-old grammar-school kid from the Garfield Park neighborhood. Smith wanted to take Arthur to a tryout at St. Joseph, a nearly all-white, Roman Catholic high school in the suburbs. The filmmakers tagged along; and so they found themselves recording how the St. Joseph coach, Gene Pingatore, recruited Arthur, hooking his parents with talk of a college education while dazzling the young player by introducing him on court to St. Joseph’s most famous graduate, Isiah Thomas.
Pingatore was happy to acquire Arthur for the freshman squad; but his dreams of a state championship rested with another 14-year-old, William Gates, whom he had recruited from the Cabrini-Green housing project and put straight onto the varsity squad. With William’s permission and that of his family, the filmmakers started following him as well.
Did they approach any other young basketball players? At a recent press conference at the New York Film Festival, the filmmakers explained that they had not; having started with $2,500 in their pockets, they barely had enough money at any one time to keep filming William and Arthur. But they did keep filming–for four and a half years, all the way through the young players’ high school careers, until some 250 hours of footage had piled up. Once edited to a release length of a little over two and a half hours, Hoop Dreams turned out to have the insane shooting ratio of 100 to 1.