(A must-see)

Directed by Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert.

Documentary filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert must have faced a critical choice when they made Hoop Dreams: would they imprint their politics on the lives of two aspiring basketball stars from Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park, or would they let a critique of American sports culture emerge from their chronicle, using the quiet tactic of editing? It looks like they chose not to risk alienating a mainstream audience indisposed to spend its leisure contemplating the racist, capitalist ethos of American basketball. The outcome is an engaging but oddly muted epic. The danger is that the film’s political impetus will escape notice: so far the media have treated Hoop Dreams to a pep rally of praise as a human drama, not as criticism of a dubious sports apparatus.

This trio of Chicagoans, distilling 250 hours of tape to 169 minutes, delivers a sociological saga that is almost puritanical in its avoidance of overt pathos and polemic. Steve James’s narration is unobtrusive, Peter Gilbert’s cinematography is undecorative, Frederick Marx’s editing is economic, and Ben Sidran’s music is on the sidelines. Crisply paced, filled with naturalistic melodrama, laced with satire and suspense, Hoop Dreams demonstrates that tragedy and comedy–and ideology–are woven into the texture of everyday life.

James, Marx, and Gilbert articulate their sympathies precisely, however, in their editing, which juxtaposes the careers of Arthur Agee and William Gates from eighth grade through their first year in college. Following the trajectory of the boys’ emulation of NBA great Isiah Thomas, this is an unmistakable critique of the American dream. Thomas attended Saint Joseph High School, a private school in suburban Westchester famous for winning basketball seasons: a shrine to his success is installed in the hallway. Recruiter Earl Smith spotted 14-year-old Agee and Gates on inner-city courts and helped them enroll as freshmen in Saint Joseph’s, but Arthur’s parents couldn’t keep up with the tuition bills, and his hoop skills–and height–didn’t measure up to the coach’s expectations. Arthur transferred back to his neighborhood public school, while William managed to stay at Saint Joseph’s thanks to a white benefactor who also obtained jobs for him and his older brother.

In two separate scenes, William gets one-on-one math tutoring at mostly white Saint Joseph’s, while Arthur learns about the civil rights movement in rowdy, bored classes at mostly black Marshall High School. “What kind of techniques were being used to take away the freedoms that had been earned?” asks a white history teacher during a class discussion. A girl cites the poll tax. “OK. Arthur, what other techniques were being used to keep African Americans from voting?” Most other parallels between the boys’ lives are similarly understated, but one edit is so overtly comparative that it elicits laughs from audiences. Heading for an away game, William’s coach tells a busful of subdued players: “Now remember, think about the ball game on the way to the game.” The coach takes his seat, and his team sits obediently in grim silence behind him. The next shot shows a boisterous busload of Marshall players listening to rapping boom boxes and playing rolling card games. The camera catches Arthur digging into his pocket for a nickel to place a bet.

White recruiters from Marquette University woo William by treating his family to a trip to Milwaukee. Stoking the potential star’s ego, the school prints up a fantasy newspaper front page with a headline touting William as a hero and plays a pseudo radio sportscast about him scoring a championship point. By contrast, a black recruiter from Kennedy-King, a local junior college, courts Arthur with meager blandishments. The recruiter’s name is Art, and he says, “Us Arts got to stick together.” He tries flattery on the family, saying, “I thought Arthur’s mom was a cheerleader.” Sheila Agee blushes, but her son doesn’t sign. When William celebrates signing with Marquette, where the arena seats 18,000, his party is shown just before a birthday celebration at Arthur’s apartment. “It’s his 18th birthday, he lived, and to get to see 18–that’s good,” beams his mother as she ices Arthur’s favorite cake.

Parallel uncomfortable scenes reveal Arthur’s and William’s similarly distant relationships with their fathers. After serving some time in jail, Arthur’s father sings in church, a pious display his son endures with impassive politeness. In the following scene, William visits his never-around father at his auto repair shop. He wonders if his dad’s new interest in his life may be sparked by his NBA prospects, and in an ironic touch, the car he’s promised lacks a steering wheel.

But James, Marx, and Gilbert reserve their most politically charged innuendo for the corporate backers of amateur athletes. “Some of the drug pushers in the neighborhood, they give us money and tell us to go shop,” Arthur explains about this demonstration of community spirit as he and his two pals browse through sporting goods stores, checking out Nike shirts and pricey shoes. “We’re playing basketball, and they can give us stuff and keep our career going, so that’s how we’re able to keep up with the style.” The next shot is a close-up of new shoes marching toward the camera at the Nike All-American Camp at Princeton University. “You should feel like a million dollars,” exhorts Dick Vitale, an over-the-top, blood-in-the-face sports personality. “My mother–God bless her, she’s in heaven today–she always said to me: This is America. You can make something of your life.” While William attends this prestigious precollege session, we see Arthur working at Pizza Hut for $3.35 an hour.

Spike Lee, lecturing the young ball players, utters the movie’s only blunt political lines: “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 you’re here–you can make their team win. If their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.” A more insidious suggestion of the slave auction is made by coaches and recruiters watching the court at the Nike camp. Three black observers agree, “They’ve got NBA bodies already.” Earlier, a Chicago sports commentator lauded William as “a thoroughbred of a player.” A white scout says, “It’s already become a meat market, but I try to do my job and serve professional meat.”

Rarely does anyone in the movie preach overt sociopolitical doctrine. Usually the target is simply “the system,” invoked to explain public-aid policy, to explain why a private suburban school withholds Arthur’s transfer credits to an inner-city public school until his back tuition is paid. After William plays despite a knee injury, his brother-in-law Alvin Bibbs tells the camera, “I’m very disappointed–y’all get that on tape 18 times. Disappointed in the system.” When Arthur’s mother faces welfare obstacles, she asks the camera, “Do you know what the system is saying to me? Do you know what it’s saying to a lot of womens in my predicament? They don’t care.”

James, Marx, and Gilbert took on “the system” explicitly in Higher Goals, a 27-minute PBS special they produced in 1992 with backing from Toyota (“Investing in the Individual”). A cautionary tale aimed at inner-city youth who watch PBS, Higher Goals deconstructed sports mystification using a mixture of interviews and staged scenes. Tim Meadows, a Second City veteran who went on to Saturday Night Live, plays Dexter in the fictional story, a student with bad grades and big dreams of basketball fame. In a fantasy sequence, he imagines having rocket-powered sneakers and a limo. The credits emphasized that “real players” were also featured: William Gates, as well as a 14-year-old girl, Kim Williams. Their hoop dreams are juxtaposed with the career of former DePaul University star Skip Dillard, who’s shown shooting baskets at the Joliet prison where he’s doing time. After the Bulls cut this hometown hero from their roster, Dillard plunged into drug abuse and armed robbery. Hoop Dreams recycles the documentary scenes of William from Higher Goals but drops the Dexter bit and the Dillard episode. Arthur Agee replaces Kim Williams. Unadorned documentary approaches replace the earlier film’s dramatic and didactic tactics.

Siskel and Ebert heaped on Hoop Dreams the same brand of praise they gave Streetwise, a 1984 documentary about Seattle street kids. No Hollywood scriptwriter could ever come up with plots and personalities as striking as these, they argued. Nor would audiences “buy” these narratives without the truth warranties bestowed by their documentary status. But these are odd, backhanded compliments, more critique of fiction than praise of nonfiction. The fact is, pure documentary makes corporate sponsors and Hollywood nervous: the publicists for Hoop Dreams, betraying marketing jitters, downplayed the “documentary” label and even urged reviewers not to give away the ending.

The key to this movie’s anomalous tone, both committed and quiet, is Kartemquin Films, the Chicago company that shares producing credits with public television station KTCA TV in Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Founded in Hyde Park in 1967, Kartemquin began as a lefty filmmakers’ cooperative and later begain doing business with clients like the Democratic Party, for which Kartemquin made Women’s Voices: The Gender Gap Movie with Chicago cartoonist Nicole Hollander. Kartemquin documentaries have the feel of partisan anthropology. In her program notes for a 1981 screening at the Film Center, Barbara Scharres credited Kartemquin projects with establishing “a kind of partnership with the subjects” instead of “a partnership with the audience at the expense of the subjects.” Scharres added that works like Taylor Chain, a gritty insider’s chronicle of an Indiana strike, manifest “the philosophical and filmic conviction that people are to be respected at all costs, and in that they are radical films.”

Hoop Dreams shares that ethic. James, Marx, and Gilbert stand by Arthur Agee and William Gates, neither romanticizing their struggle nor demonizing those who tarnish their dreams. Recruiters, coaches, teachers–even the boys’ fathers–could be easy targets, but the filmmakers forgo cheap shots. Nor do they belittle our need to dream, no matter how crassly those dreams are packaged by merchandisers and myth hustlers.