Arthur Agee and William Gates start out on even playing fields. Both of them are promising young, African American basketball players from Chicago who dream of playing in the NBA. Both of them are of lower socio-economical status and belong to broken or unstable families. Both of them are recruited by an independent scout from St. Joseph’s high school, a predominately white high school which boasts an excellent basketball program. This is where their similarities end. From here on in, both Arthur and William embark on vastly differing paths on the way towards reaching their goals. Yet by the film’s conclusion both young men’s paths converge once again, as we find their spirits somewhat broken by a system that can’t help but keep them down.
Hoop Dreams is not a political film however, despite its entanglement in major issues facing the youth of a modern America, rather it is a deeply affecting and humanist portrayal of desire, hope and determination against all odds. A film that strives to encapsulate the elation and despair experienced by both young men across the four years that it follows them is striking enough, but it is the manner in which the stories are unfolded and the simplicity by which they communicate the inherent issues which makes the film such a towering achievement. Through simple juxtaposition of two disparate stories, film maker Steve James elicits the complexities of modernity and urbanisation that bewilders the individual, especially those of underprivileged status. The success of both Arthur and William is not dependent solely on their racial orientation, their upbringing or their sheer will, but rather relies on an incalculable and random set of variables, that of which the complexity of the matter is usually lost on us. However, the manner in which the film exposes how effortlessly these systems and processes can affect our lives is both masterful and ultimately terrifying.
William’s career initially shows much promise. His skills on the court are flourishing and his grades are well above the required level. He is a timid young man, and obviously lacks confidence, but this will come with time we tell ourselves as we watch the budding of a potential athlete. That is until a knee injury causes a sharp halt to his steady incline, an injury from which he will never seem to recover. Arthur on the other hand, an outspoken and energetic figure, faces difficulties early on, with his father becoming addicted to crack cocaine and being imprisoned, combined with his parents’ inability to continue to pay the tuition for St. Joseph’s, he is forced to leave the school and attend a public school in the city, seemingly ending his career before it even begins. It is the way in which these two storylines interplay and juxtapose each other that elicits the rich complexity of each individual situation (and ultimately that of all individuals) that makes the film such an eye-opening and confronting experience. Family life, economic hardships, physical roadblocks, general pressures and the influence of others all come crashing down on optimism, yet in each of these young men the dream somehow drives forward. Whilst the film is not explicitly pessimistic, its optimism does not sweeten the experience either. Rather what results is a very level-headed portrait of experience in a modern American city.
Perhaps the most pessimistic element of the film is the obvious role that money plays in determining individual lives. Well aware of the human dependency on the dollar as we are, it is disheartening to witness the love of basketball that these young men hold so dear be drained out of them by the realisation that their game is one dominated by economics and scholarships. There is a real joy in watching William and Arthur play basketball on the concrete courts of their neighbourhoods initially, and this lies in stark contrast to the highly pressurised environment of the quarter and semi-finals games they eventually become involved in. Halfway through the film director Spike Lee talks to one of the teams about how the college teams don’t particularly care about each player, but rather recruit them so they can win games. Money drives every decision, and in Hoop Dreams, these decisions have serious repercussions for these young men’s lives, some of which see professional basketball as their only way out of a bad situation. Basketball transitions from being a dream into being a business throughout the four years we follow William and Arthur, and the realisation (one which we of course already knew) is devastating.
For Arthur and William opportunity doesn’t come very easy. Neither hard work, skill nor determination can guarantee them a secure future or even the hope of playing the sport they love. In the end they both face the hard realities of their situation, slumping back into the system they so desperately struggled to escape from. However, not all is grim, as both young men are on their way towards gaining a tertiary education, and while they may no longer have stars in their eyes, it seems their efforts will not be in vain. As the film concludes we are left with both men (now also fathers) portrayed as seemingly well-rounded and mindful individuals. Surely there are more hardships along the way, and surely they will be accompanied by moments of hope and happiness. A little effort may not go a long way, but perhaps in this life, it will go just far enough.
Written by Simon Di Berardino