We were there to be taught. We wanted to be taught, to find out what is this experience of the love of this game. How does that translate into the fabric of your lives?
— Frederick Marx, commentary, Hoop Dreams: Criterion CollectionI was 14. Somebody was interested in my life? Let’s do it.
— William Gates, commentary, Hoop Dreams: Criterion Collection
You have to realize that nobody cares about you. You’re black, you’re a young male, all you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here is you can make their team win.
— Spike Lee, Hoop Dreams
“It was one of those things that, immediately, I was dying to be a part of,” remembers Hoop Dreams DP-producer Peter Gilbert. He’s joined here with director-editor-producer Steve James and editor-producer Frederick Marx for the commentary track on Criterion’s long-awaited DVD of Hoop Dreams. Witty, sincere, and perceptive, their observations perfectly complement those on the disc’s second commentary track, by the film’s young subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, now grown up and full of insights regarding their personal experiences, the meanings of the film, and the industry of basketball.
The filmmakers remember that their “labor of love” was originally conceived as a half-hour tv program they hope PBS would broadcast. How could they have known that it would “grown ad change” into a four-years-plus project, producing hundreds of hours of footage and turning into a phenomenon, a documentary that attracted a mainstream audience (and until Bowling for Columbine, the highest-grossing documentary ever, making $7.8 million during its year in theaters, starting in October 2004).
“The thing that was astounding,” says James, as Arthur and William appear on screen, each watching Isiah Thomas on television and dreaming of being in the NBA, “was just how incredibly comfortable the process of making this film was, with these families and their communities. It was actually funny in a lot of ways, because we became known as the three crazy white guys with the camera.” Gilbert adds, “And there were certain things we knew going in, because of what our race was, that we would never see. And that was fine. We weren’t going in, saying to them, ‘We’re making the ultimate story about the black experience in Chicago, for an inner city African American family.”
The documentary tracks the diverging stories of Arthur and William, first scouted for the mostly white, suburban St. Joseph high school basketball team (the program that “produced” Isiah Thomas) as 14-year-olds. Coach Gene Pingatore offers them “guarantees,” that if the boys followed the rules and did work for the team, they would get to college. It was, as the filmmakers remember, an extraordinary promise, instilling in them the desire to suss out the system — how it uses the kids who so desperately want to believe in it.
The result — what James calls a “longitudinal film” — is famous and respected for many reasons, not least because of the dramatic storylines it waves together so gracefully, not only those of the two principals, but also their families — Arthur’s mother Sheila and father Bo (shot to death in December 2004), William’s mom Emma and brother Curtis, a former baller working as a security guard during the film (and murdered in September 2001). Criterion’s DVD includes expanding framing for these stories (this even as the filmmakers are at work on a follow-up film, supported by Criterion, tracking Arthur and William today), including segments from Siskel & Ebert concerning the movie’s success, a music video for Tony M’s theme song, and an impressive 40-page booklet featuring a dedication to the Gates and Agee families written by Steve James, elegant essays by John Edgar Wideman and Alexander Wolff, and Michael Wise’s July 2004 Washington Post article, “Looking Back at Broken Dreams.”
As Arthur and William look back for their commentary track, they hardly sound broken. Now both 32 and fathers of four children each, they remember fondly their interactions with the filmmakers. Watching himself at 14, Arthur says, “I look like my son right there, Anthony.” In the film, young Arthur is riding out to St. Joe’s for the first time, thrilled and nervous: “I’ve never been to a school way out there before,” the boy tells James and Gilbert, sitting in the back seat of the car. “I would be going to a school with different kids, different races.” Older Arthur remembers, “It was scary, it was crazy. Look at those homes and how the sidewalks are lined and everything. Grass. Even getting out there and seeing all the white guys, the white kids and everything. But something inside of me told I just had to hold up.”
On the court, as Arthur notes, he regains his confidence, demonstrated as the film shows his amazing meeting with Isiah on Arthur’s first day visiting St. Joe’s. Slow motion imagery and swelling strings amplify the child’s excitement, his sheer joy at playing with his idol, his face brilliant with bliss. And just at that moment, the film cuts to Coach Pingatore, his voiceover describing Arthur’s lack of confidence, compared to Isiah’s “total combination, of personality, confidence, and talent,” at least as Coach remembers it. For his part, Arthur recalls, “I’m thinking like… ‘Not that good, but I’m all right!'” And he was, just not the marketable package that Washington presented right off, even when, as Arthur and William would also, he traveled three hours each day, by train and bus, from home to St. Joe’s and back. They all wanted it that badly.
Hoop Dreams is the game, but more so about the “dreams” ignited in the kids and their parents, and even Ping. It is also about media effects on experience, as when the local tv reporters pick up on William as “the next Isiah Thomas,” or even in the form of the documentary cameras trailing along behind Arthur and William for years (and, as Marx notes, the film, because it took so long to shoot, shows the evolution of their own technology, as the more advanced cameras were better able to “hold black faces against the sky” than those they used in the early scenes). “When I was at St. Joe’s and the cameras were around,” remembers Arthur, “I was liking it. Being [one of the] few black kids, with the camera following you and asking questions and all that. That’s when all the popularity started.” William, though he says he didn’t even notice the cameras, as he was so focused on playing, also recalls that after every game, he went to check the local newspapers, to look for his picture. Arthur adds, proud of his friend, “He was the only freshman on that [varsity] team. Can you imagine? The juniors, they looking at him, they had to be mad!”
The film follows the boys through their high school careers, though Arthur is “let go” at the start of his sophomore year. At this point, the filmmakers want to keep on his story, and that’s when, Arthur remembers now, “I understood what type of project these guys wanted to get.” That is, a project about highs and lows, commitment and frustration, effort and desire, about the ways that dreams are repeatedly shattered and reshaped by circumstance. “We tried very hard to make everybody be a complex, three-dimensional person on the screen,” says Marx. “We asked ourselves all the time, are we showing good and bad sides?… The more you that can present the full complexity of real people’s lives, the more you can throw into relief the struggles that hey face existing in a world that has social struggles that surround them and limit them.”
As the filmmakers spent so much time with their subjects, and over such a long period, they developed understandable attachments to one another. When Arthur’s family is unable to pay bills and their electricity is turned off, the crew faced a dilemma: unable to shoot at the apartment, literally, they also wanted to help the Agees. And while they did end up paying to have the electricity turned back on, they wrestled with the questions raised by the event throughout the production: how could they manage their layered and multiple relationships with the families, maintaining at once a professional distance and the closeness that enabled the film to be so detailed and so richly textured?
When, for example, William injures his knee, in a way that is potentially career-ending. James notes in his commentary, “I remember coming out of this [doctor’s office visit] and just feeling this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach about William, about what had happened, and what it could mean to him and his family. It’s one of these moments in telling someone’s story where you feel absolutely awful for your subjects, but there is that tiny little voice that you hate, that’s saying, ‘Look at what’s happening here, from a dramatic standpoint.’ If there’s one thing that I have not been able to come to terms with, it’s this issue.”
As Arthur and William’s lives take unexpected turns, so does Hoop Dreams, as a narrative, but also as a record of multiple experiences, for the boys, their families, and the filmmakers: all are on display, in subtle, provocative, and moving ways. This remarkable, relentlessly compelling movie never shies away from its deep analysis of the professionalization of the game and college recruiting (observing the Nike Summer Camp sequence in the film, Marx asserts, “It’s about economics”), but it also never lets go of the faith, energy, and desire embodied by Arthur and William. “We could have been harder” on the business, says Gilbert. “But in the end, we wanted to tell the stories of these two kids, not trying to do an expose on the plusses and minuses of what they would call a career path. What was important is William and Arthur and their families, and what happened to them.” Eleven years later, it’s still what’s most important.