…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.

None of this would matter, of course, had James, Marx and Gilbert amassed 250 hours’ worth of garbage. But life turned out to be marvelously accommodating, for the filmmakers if not for the subjects. As Hoop Dreams unfolds, William’s story winds up complementing Arthur’s almost point for point, giving the film a depth and completeness that are all the more thrilling for having been impossible to plan.

Born into a family of stolid, roundfaced people, William sets to work at St. Joseph with a determination that’s as quiet as it is joyless. Coach Pingatore tells him what to do; so does his older brother Curtis, whose own hoop dreams have failed; so, in her way, does the St. Joseph fan who helps pay William’s tuition and gives him a summer job. William, soft-spoken and shy, mostly listens and obeys. He asserts himself with pleasure in two areas only: in the classroom, where he discovers that he can stand up to the white students academically, and at home, where he starts a family of his own by the time he’s in the eleventh grade. It says something about William’s needs and his character that he keeps this family hidden from his coach for as long as possible.

Singled out for success, relentlessly pressured and promoted, William is the type of player who soars on the court. Arthur, by contrast, is the type who scoots. Like his parents, Sheila and Bo, he’s high-strung and rabbity. Like them, he can be vividly demonstrative or else shut out other people entirely; but he will not practice the guarded courtesy that William excels in, nor does he get the first-class treatment that William enjoys.

Having disappointed Coach Pingatore with his erratic play, Arthur somehow never encounters any tuition-paying fans. So, midway through his first semester of tenth grade, the school sends him packing. His mother, suffering from a bad back, has had to give up her job and cannot pay St. Joseph. As for Arthur’s father, he has been laid off from a series of jobs by now and is settling into a period of unemployment, drug use and street crime. It’s not clear in the film whether the drug habit caused the job losses or was caused by them. (It’s not always clear in life, either.) To all of the Agees, though, it seems very clear that St. Joseph would have tolerated the debt had Coach Pingatore thought more highly of Arthur’s skills. Marked a failure at 15 and still reading at the fourth-grade level, Arthur has to plunge at midterm into the metal-detector atmosphere of Chicago’s Marshall High School, joining classmates and basketball players who are not used to having him around.

It would be hard to invent a more grating story of how white America uses and discards young black men; and if Hoop Dreams concluded at this point, it would be a memorably devastating picture (not to mention a much shorter one). But the filmmakers’ virtue, like Arthur’s, was to keep going. More reversals ensue, in Arthur’s fortunes and in William’s, enough of them for a whole novel. Meanwhile, as the subjects’ lives arrange themselves into a pattern of Dreiserian irony, the movie fills up with multitudes of detail. To the average viewer, these particulars may seem repetitive, even downright exhausting; but only a fool would give them up.

It’s important to see, for example, that the Agees and their community organize a ceremony to mark each change in life. Humble in tone, despite the participants’ great care to look their best, these events usually involve a lot of unoccupied folding chairs and invariably feature a gospel singer, who rises above the pings and echoes of the hail’s amplifier to perform a heartfelt solo. One such ceremony, incorporated into a film, would amount to local color. Hoop Dreams gives you three or four, so you can feel the cumulative rhythm in the Agees’ lives of struggle and thanksgiving.

Other elements of Hoop Dreams also have their cumulative effect: the basketball games, with their rising intensity as each season wears on; the physical changes that overtake the subjects, as children grow to maturity and parents lose their teeth; the words–all those orders and counsels, blandishments and threats–that pour in a steady torrent over William and Arthur. Since Arthur has a way of going deaf around authority, a casual viewer might think him unaffected by the yak-yak, for good or ill. But the increasing steadiness of his play leads me to believe he must have paid some attention to his coach at Marshall, Luther Bedford, who as a black man has, shall we say, a different perspective from that of Gene Pingatore. We hear Bedford speak forcefully about the one-time hoop-dreamers who now stand on street corners in Chicago, owning nothing but the empty boast that they once played for Marshall. A vivid picture – though Pingatore seems strangely unfamiliar with it. His talk is all about the disappointment gnawing at Isiah Thomas’s heart to this day, because he never led St. Joseph to a state championship. It does not surprise me that William Gates, after listening to this stuff for four years, said goodbye to Pingatore in one of the coldest scenes ever to be recorded on celluloid.

“I have to play basketball:’ William has said at one point to his girlfriend, Catherine. “It’s my way out. It’s the only way I’m ever getting to college.” Her reply: “Well, I’m going to college, and I don’t play basketball.” By the end of the film, William seems to have learned what she already knew. He will go to college, but he will study as much as play, knowing he needs a life beyond basketball. (What will he study? Communications, he tells Pingatore–“so when you come asking me for a contribution, I’ll know the right way to turn you down?’) Arthur, too, is disillusioned, though still intent on a basketball career, he now pursues his goal with cold eyes.

By this time, Arthur has learned what he amounts to in the sports business, and in the society that business serves. If he’s good–if he’s very, very good–then he’ll be what a coach in Hoop Dreams admits he’s searching for:

“Professional meat.”