Some of the best reviews of the year are going to a three-hour documentary about a couple of inner-city Chicago kids who dream of becoming basketball stars in the NBA. "Hoop Dreams" (opening Friday), has come out of the Sundance, Toronto, New York and Chicago film festivals trailing clouds of glory, and critical praise that few fiction films are ever granted. Why are the critics so enthusiastic?
The first publicity that the film received was last January, in the Sun-Times and on the "Siskel & Ebert" TV program. Gene Siskel and I saw a preview, and were so stunned by the film's power we decided to break precedent and review it before it even had a distributor, let alone an opening date. Why? See the film, and you'll understand.
Since Sundance, where "Hoop Dreams" won the audience prize as the most popular film, it has conquered festivals and audiences wherever it has been screened. The New York Film Festival recently picked it for the prestigious closing slot - the first documentary so honored. After seeing it at the festival, Newsweek's David Anson devoted a two-page spread to the film, calling it "one of the richest movie experiences of the year, a spellbinding American epic." The New York Times' Caryn James said it was "brilliantly revealing" and "deeply engrossing."
What critics are responding to, I think, is the result of an effort few films have ever been willing to make. "Hoop Dreams" follows its two young lives for a period of seven years.
It is clear in the very texture of the film that the filmmakers and their subjects - two young men named Arthur Agee and William Gates, who were in eighth grade when the film began - made this journey together. There could have been no way to predict how the film would turn out - how real life would become more dramatic, more moving and more surprising than fiction.
The three Chicagoans who made "Hoop Dreams" are directors Steve James and Frederick Marx and cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Talking with them at the Toronto Film Festival, I learned they began with pocket change and an idea for a 30-minute short, but quickly became aware that they were committed to the destinies of Agee and Gates for the long run. Grants came in piecemeal to keep the project alive; marriages and relationships suffered because the three men were endlessly following their subjects, through some 250 hours of film that record virtually every important moment in all those years. (Their effort pays off when they capture incredibly important personal turning points during basketball games.)
In ordinary fiction films, we are, of course, always aware that the lives on the screen are being created by the filmmakers and actors. They may seem deeply convincing and authentic, but beneath everything is our awareness that they are imaginary. So we ask questions - whether something "would" or "should" happen. In a documentary, there can be no such questions. The events clearly did happen, and neither the subjects nor the filmmakers could have anticipated them.
What happens in "Hoop Dreams" would be described, in a fiction film, as poetic justice - or as an astonishing reversal of fortune, or as powerful drama. It might even be criticized for being "too good to be true." Watching the film, realizing at every moment that no one on the screen has any idea how it is going to turn out, we get caught up in the suspense of real lives.
There is also cause for real anger in the film. American Dreams such as NBA stardom are concepts much celebrated when they have a happy ending. But for every Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas, there are thousands who do not win their dreams. The makers of "Hoop Dreams" assert that of the 500,000 boys who play high school basketball in a given year, 14,000 will play in college - and of those, only 25 will play at least one season in the NBA. The winning percentage is .00005 - a heartbreaking statistic, but Arthur and William and thousands more still dream.
What "Hoop Dreams" proves is that their dreams can have other, more tangible payoffs. It is possible that Gates and Agee might not have finished high school without basketball as an inspiration, and likely they would never have gone to college. In the long run, the closing scenes in the movie suggest, the dreams that do come true may prove more valuable than those that don't.