It is a measure of the film's power that we find ourselves rooting for the boys to succeed within the corrupt system instead of loathing the hypocrisy that makes the stakes of the game so high.
"Hoop Dreams" drops us into the lives of two high school freshmen who are sprouting alongside the weeds in the chain- linked concrete of Chicago's basketball playgrounds. At 14, William Gates and Arthur Agee are passports to a brighter world for their families. For all of them, the "Road Closed" sign is up, and the one in 2000 shot that the two boys might play NBA basketball is the faint glow that keeps them going.
But this is not a story of noble mentors and the American dream. It is, instead, a moving, infuriating documentary about the manipulation of children by educators and the corruption of American sports. It was made by three young men, Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert - who had allotted $2500 and two weeks to their project and stayed with it for over four years.
Earl Smith, talent scout, takes the boys, who are reading at 4th and 5th grade levels, to Gene Pingatore, coach, who owes his fame to his discovery of NBA star Isiah Thomas. From that moment on, the film is, on one level, an ugly story of adult greed. On another, it is the wrenching chronicle of two families whose only hope of relief is the possible ascension of their 14 year-old- sons.
You will not forget Sheila Agee, Arthur's mother, receiving her certificate as a nursing assistant and jumping for joy in an empty room. Neither will you forget a coach who says, "It's a meat market, and I try to serve professional meat." This particular road out of the inner city is a traffic jam of screaming fans, flawed educators, and greedy corporations, all clawing for a chunk of the dollar sign that stands at the top of the sports pyramid. The stench of it has created an ugly stampede.
No one in this picture cares about William Gates and Arthur Agee. They are simply mobile equations of hand/eye coordination with a high potential for knee injury. If they make it, the establishment will suck their blood. If they don't, no one will ever notice them again. In a memorable scene following Arthur's failure to make a Division One college, he ends up at Mineral Area Junior College in a small house built of unpainted pressboard, an isolation hut for six black basketball players. It is a measure of the film's power that we find ourselves rooting for the boys to succeed within the corrupt system instead of loathing the hypocrisy that makes the stakes of the game so high.
With moving sensitivity, three men filmed the struggles and foibles of these families and became part of their lives. Their achievement is riveting, but leaves us in despair. The result of their patience and skill is a stunning statement about a sports establishment ruthlessly devoted to the enrichment of itself through shameless manipulation of young athletes. That's the system, corrupt to its slimy core, and it's ours.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
Studio: Kartemquin Films
Copyright (c) Illusion
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