by Murray Sperber
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 3-7
Of all Hollywood products, sports movies are particularly genre driven. From the classical studio biopics on Lou Gehrig and Knute Rockne (PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, KNUTE ROCKNE: ALL AMERICAN) to revisionist baseball and football films (BULL DURHAM, NORTH DALLAS FORTY), as well as such parodies as MAJOR LEAGUE and SLAPSHOT, Hollywood has portrayed athletes as conquering heroes or bums (often lovable and/or redeemable), triumphing over impossible odds (ROCKY) or throwing fights (BODY AND SOUL), fulfilling various American dreams (FIELD OF DREAMS) or violating them (EIGHT MEN OUT), and almost always enveloped in a very conservative ideology.
In recent years, sports films have increasingly mixed genre forms-they use a revisionist cynicism about some aspects of big-time athletics but then undercut it with traditional plot lines, heroes, and love stories, e.g., THE PROGRAM and NECESSARY ROUGHNESS. At some point in the mixed genre movies, the social critique evaporates and the classical form prevails. Thus, the one constant in almost all sports movies is the adherence to formulaic themes, predictable narratives, easily recognized iconography, and, above all, conservative ideology. (Only the brilliant and totally revisionist RAGING BULL broke new ground and immediately distinguished itself from every other sports film ever made.)[open notes in new window]
Unlike most fiction movies, with their generic formulas and knee-jerk emotions, documentary films strive for more realistic representations and responses. Since the Lumière brothers' ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN, documentarists have sought authenticity and have wanted the images to shape the viewers' emotions. Of course, documentary filmmakers have tended to shape their material-the decisions on what to shoot, how to shoot and edit are highly subjective and potentially intrusive — but the goal has been authenticity, the capturing of the "privileged moment" when the filmmaker reveals the subject as close to "real life" as possible and the audience responds directly to this representation. When a documentary succeeds, it has a power that few fiction films attain.
No documentary in the last decade has attracted the critical praise, controversy, as well as box office and video dollars that the 1994 movie, HOOP DREAMS, has gained. Three Chicago filmmakers, Frederick Marx, Steve James, and Peter Gilbert, immersed themselves in the lives of two talented African-American basketball players, and followed their subjects, Arthur Agee and William Gates, from the eighth grade to college entrance. The success of the film — indeed, its very form — reveals much about present-day United States, its politics, and the mediated culture in which we live.
Journalists, including newspaper film reviewers, tend to love the film and to accept it at face value. A typical comment appeared in a review in the Albany (NY) Times Union: "While it stays loyal to the documentary's just-the-facts form, HOOP DREAMS unfolds more like its popular cinematic cousin, the narrative film. Characters evolve. A plot develops. There's a dramatic high point, even a surprise ending." This reviewer naively accepts the "objective" facade of the film but, unwittingly, points to the fact that in spite of almost three hours of documentary footage, HOOP DREAMS is a genre driven product, mixing elements of the classical and revisionist forms. Moreover, because of its "star" characters and upbeat ending, its form is highly recognizable and comforting to audiences.
Indeed, for all of the filmmakers' claims about recording the objective truth of the lives of young African-American basketball players in the ghetto, the fame of the film has turned the spotlight — as well as a lawsuit — on them, and revealed their actual methods and agenda.
William Gates, one of the two main characters, candidly told an interviewer that, in the beginning, the filmmakers "came to us with an idea. Basically, it was, 'Hey, we've got this story. Would you guys mind having us follow you around for awhile.’" The story was how the fantasy of playing big-time basketball captures the lives of poor, young blacks and propels them into a corrupt rat race where ruthless adults, mainly white — street agents, high school and college coaches — manipulate them for their own ego and monetary ends.
The filmmakers pursued their story relentlessly and spent a number of years and miles of film on it. In addition, they employed a ruthlessness worthy of the agents and coaches whom they condemn. Early on in the film, they introduce Gene Pingatore, the coach of a wealthy suburban school, St. Joseph's of Westchester, Illinois, who wants desperately to win a state basketball championship. They also show street agent Earl Smith searching the Chicago ghettos for young, promising b-ball talent, then helping arrange for Agee and Gates to attend St. Joseph's and play for Pingatore.
However, the filmmakers — according to their admission in the lawsuit that they settled out-of-court — in convincing the school and the coach to allow them to shoot on its premises and in all situations involving Agee and Gates, "misrepresented the nature of their work as not-for-profit." The lawsuit also charged that "the film was not an accurate reflection of St. Joseph High School or its staff or students." The video version of the film contains the filmmakers' apology.
At one level, the filmmakers should not have had difficulty admitting that their portrayal of the school or even of these two athletes' lives was not totally accurate. How could it be? As William Gates explained,
Thus, as Robert Flaherty worried in 1921 when he shot NANOOK OF THE NORTH, one of the first full-length documentary films, the presence of the intruders from the alien culture as well as the existence of the cameras inevitably changes the subjects' responses and transforms everyday life into special and artificial situations. Seventy years later, in a wall-to-wall media age where the subjects have seen endless hours of film and television (Nanook had never even seen a photograph), cinema verité becomes impossible.
But more to the point for HOOP DREAMS, the choice of Gates and Agee was highly subjective and totally determined by the exigencies of the story line. The filmmakers selected eighth grade basketball players who clearly had "blue chip" potential — athletes who should excel in high school, could probably win athletic scholarships from major universities, and possibly reach that elite and miniscule circle who play in the NBA (National Basketball Association). The filmmakers chose Gates and Agee because their lives promised a predictable kind of sports drama — high stakes victory or defeat.
They did not select two young black men from the 'hood who possessed the same dreams as Gates and Agee and who worked as hard on their basketball skills but lacked "blue chip" talent. Such players might not even make their high school varsity and probably would fall short of college athletic scholarships, never mind shots at the pros. A film about two typical losers in the rat race, representing the vast majority of participants, would reveal a far different sports and political reality.
In HOOP DREAMS, the filmmakers present the following statistics: Every year in the United States, about 500,000 young men play high school basketball; about 14,000 of them will make it to college b- ball; and about 25 from this pool will go on to the NBA. However, these statistics are misleading. In fact, the majority of basketball players at university level are white and middle-class and playing for such NCAA Division III schools as Kenyon. In any given year, the schools in big-time basketball (NCAA Division I) recruit about 1,300 male players; about 800 of them are African American but only about 500 are ghetto kids. (Increasing numbers of black stars, like Grant Hill, are from middle-class backgrounds.) Thus about .005% win athletic scholarships as Gates and Agee did. But the dreams of the approximately one hundred thousand black inner city teenagers who lose this race every year are as real as those of the "blue-chippers." And the power of the sports fantasy over these youngsters — who squander their school years pursuing this dream — reveals a political situation much more desperate and despicable than audiences saw in this film.
The strength and power of HOOP DREAMS is not its sports story — that becomes too predictable and genre driven — but its representation of the players' families, particularly their mothers, Emma Gates and Sheila Agee. Their lives are much more typical than those of their talented sons. Thus the revelation of their struggles makes a more powerful statement than do the stories of their kids' basketball careers. These two African-American women, who never dunked a basketball, are the true heroes of HOOP DREAMS, and the reality of their lives is what rivets many viewers. Their strength is what we should admire, and their moments of despair and joy provide the best instances of documentary authenticity in the film.
When Arthur Agee's father leaves home, a victim of crack addiction, Sheila has to keep the family together. At one point, she turns to the camera and says,
Most white upper or middle-class people never do ask such questions. Too many of them embraced Ronald Reagan's cartoon of "Welfare Queens" and now endorse Newt Gingrich's even more vicious slanders on welfare mothers. But entering the reality of Sheila Agee's life gives most viewers of this film unprecedented access to a world about which they know almost nothing, and this documentary authenticity transforms the Agee and Gates families into non-demonic and very human people.
At one point, Sheila has so little money that the utility companies turn off the electricity and heat in the Agee apartment. The filmmakers come upon the scene and show the family in the cold and dark. To the documentarists great credit — and this is not in the film — they then give Sheila the money to pay her utility bills. (Only documentarists possessing the illusion of objectivity would not intervene for fear of changing the reality.) Sheila Agee struggles against her poverty and with amazing determination takes a school course to train as an auxiliary nurse. When she receives word that she has passed the course, she bursts into tears of joy — this is the film's best moment, one that far transcends the basketball triumphs of her son.
Unfortunately, in HOOP DREAMS, family life is secondary to basketball careers, but in the course of almost three hours we do learn some extraordinary and disturbing facts about big-time high school and college basketball and its political context. The suburban high school, St. Joseph's, plucks Arthur Agee and William Gates out of the ghetto. However, after their freshmen year, the coach decides that Arthur is not talented enough for the team and throws him back into inner city Chicago. There is a horrifying contrast between the sleek, white suburban school, with its polite students and earnest teachers, versus dilapidated, dangerous Marshall High, with its gangbangers and frazzled staff. These images imprint upon the viewer much more deeply than do the glossy Hollywood versions of suburban and 'hood high schools in coming-of-age fictions.
Meanwhile, William Gates, although an indifferent student, succeeds on the basketball court and by the end of his sophomore year seems truly destined for the NBA. Then his Hoop Dream cracks — in crazily intense practice drills before his junior year, he tears up a knee. After the doctors operate, they advise him to sit out the season. The effect on William is astounding: rather than perceive the fragility of the dream and seize the opportunity to gain a good education at a suburban high school, he loses interest in his studies. The subtext is clear: for kids like William, the dream of sports stardom is so powerful and so tied to their self-definition that when the dream is in mortal danger — the doctors warn William that he might not regain full use of his knee — the individual begins to disintegrate along with the dream.
Fortunately for William, because he has shown so much athletic potential before his injury, the school pays for the best physical rehabilitation available, and also arranges for the head of the Encyclopedia Britannica Corporation to sponsor him at the school and for special tutoring. Slowly he regains use of his knee. He begins to play again and to study to meet NCAA college eligibility requirements (a few years ago, the NCAA, as part of its "student-athlete" propaganda, ruled that incoming freshmen must attain minimum — and minimal — scores of 700 out of 1600 on their SAT or the equivalent on their ACT exams to compete as freshmen).
Next, in one of those wonderful ironies that real life and documentaries, unlike Hollywood fiction films, provide, Arthur Agee grows much taller, gets his basketball game together, and becomes a star in Chicago's top flight — athletically, not academically — public school league. Arthur has an excellent senior year and is on track for an athletic scholarship at a major university, but he cannot get near 700 on his SATs (only 25% of the questions answered correctly). After twelve years of schooling, Arthur's math and verbal skills are meager — even in high school, he has never taken Algebra. But he can go to a junior college without the SAT minimum score and he receives an athletic scholarship from Mineral Area J.C. in Missouri. There, he lives in a bleak cinderblock house with the other black basketball players on the team — the only African Americans in this white, sliced-bread corner of middle America.
Meanwhile William, although still troubled with his knee injury, performs well at the Nike summer basketball camp that the important college coaches attend in their search for talent — their slang term for the camp is "The Meat Market." He later receives an athletic scholarship offer from Marquette University. Even though he had once dreamed of a higher-octane program, he wisely accepts the Marquette deal. The movie ends with Arthur at the bleak Montana JUCO and William on his way to Milwaukee. After the final action frame of HOOP DREAMS, the filmmakers add a written postscript: William had a troubled career at Marquette, dropped out for a while, but eventually returned; Arthur made it to Division I basketball on an athletic scholarship at Arkansas State University (Junior College transfers do not have to meet SAT minimums and whether Arthur could ever get a total of 700 on the SATs is unknown).
Most film critics focused on and cheered William and Arthur's rise from the ghetto. However, a few reviewers saw another message in the film. Joseph Cunneen in the National Catholic Reporter — prompted in part by the film's devastating portrait of a Catholic high school's chasing sports fame — commented,
The major problem with HOOP DREAMS is that its images raise such questions but the filmmakers never explore them. Indeed, they relentlessly avoid analysis in favor of the "star" trajectories of William and Arthur. Occasionally in the movie, we hear the voice of one of the filmmakers prompt a subject by asking a question. But never do they ask the officials at St. Joseph's or comparable institutions why white suburban high schools — public as well as parochial — search for athletic talent in the ghetto and yet rarely seek bright young black kids with high academic potential but minimal sports ability? And why do so many universities engage in similar search-and-ignore missions? (The answers would reveal part of the deep racism in the U.S. and the desire on the part of many whites to confine blacks to entertainer roles.)
The filmmakers also show young Arthur and William watching NBA games on TV, captivated by the media images of professional players like Michael Jordan, caught up in the marketing campaigns of Nike and other athletic shoe manufacturers. But they never analyze the meaning of such hegemonic slogans as "Work hard, play hard," and "It's up to you," and how these manipulate and mock the U.S. dream of class mobility when placed within the context of the astronomical odds of ghetto kids actually being "like Mike."
Finally, HOOP DREAMS becomes an advertisement for the lottery. Instead of revealing how the dream of winning the sports lottery is a cruel fantasy and socially regressive as well as repressive, the film tries to catch us up in the lives of two potential winners. Indeed, the post-production careers of Agee, Gates, and the filmmakers are the story of a bunch of guys who hit the Giant Lotto number.
At first, when the filmmakers tried to interest distributors in their finished product, according to Steve James,
If HOOP DREAMS had resembled the film described by James — a true documentary, taking three hours to explore the political context as well the lives of black basketball players representative of the legion who do not win the sports lottery — then, in all probability, the audience and judges at the Sundance Film Festival would have disliked it. Such powerful critics as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would have ignored it instead of pushing it toward major distribution. And the film would become a documentary cult classic rather than a mainstream critical and commercial triumph. The story of HOOP DREAMS' post-production career is a revealing tale of Media-Made America today.
After the film won other awards and placed on many critics' "Ten Best Films of 1994" lists, it reaped a publicity bonanza when the Academy Award selectors, because of the archaic voting system in the Documentary category, failed to nominate it for the final round of the 1994 award. The resulting controversy pushed the box office receipts over $5 million — unprecedented for a documentary film in the mall cinema age — and put the predicted video dollars at another $3 million. Then the spinoffs began: Spike Lee signed with Turner Broadcasting to do a TV version of the film. A major publishing house commissioned a book on the film. PBS paid top dollar to telecast the film during the fall of 1995. And the filmmakers went on to other projects, one a movie entitled, NAGASAKI DUST, and the other a film based on a famous former pro basketball player, Connie Hawkins, who had a very troubled career.
The initial success of HOOP DREAMS also started the commodification of William Gates and Arthur Agee. Michael Apted, the British movie director, predicted that the film's reception would "open doors for those two fellows," and such TV programs as ABC's NIGHTLINE soon validated their media status when it proclaimed them "celebrities." Then, with the imprimatur of People magazine — its headline on an article on Agee and Gates was, "FOR THE STARS OF THE MOVIE HOOP DREAMS, THE REAL WORLD HOLDS UNEXPECTED PROMISE" — the boys hit their first paydays. Spike Lee hired them as consultants for his TNT movie and various agencies began to pursue them for media appearances, speeches, store openings, etc.
William Gates ended his basketball playing career at Marquette in the spring of 1995. His injured knee and an inability to crack the starting lineup kept him on the bench for all but a few minutes of most games. Gates wisely retired from competitive b-ball after the season to pursue the opportunities provided by the success of HOOP DREAMS, including an announcing job on WMAQ-AM, the Chicago station with the highest listener ratings.
Arthur Agee, although just an average player on a mediocre team near the bottom of Division I, wants to continue to pursue his Hoop Dream. In an ultra-cynical move, the minor league United States Basketball League made him their 1994 Number One draft choice. The USBL calculated correctly that Agee's fame from the film would attract media attention for their league. Such important media outlets as the Washington Post responded with feature articles on Agee's Number One draft status (the articles did not mention that the USBL lives mainly on NBA rejects — those players cut from NBA teams — not on its own draft choices).
The main theme of the post-production articles on Gates and Agee is — to quote the Washington Post headline — "Agee Sees a Brighter Future." The articles eerily parallel the file features on lottery winners — "Out of Work Truck Driver with Eight Mouths to Feed Hits the Big One." They are full of congratulation for the ticket holder and, by implication, for the society that rescues such poor, down-trodden people. The articles do not mention the millions of black basketball and lottery players devoured by the dream, and the political implications of this grotesque reality.
Thus, for all of its brilliant documentary sequences, HOOP DREAMS remains a Hollywood genre film about sports, focusing on the biographies of the stars, trying to catch us up in their adventures and triumphs, implying that their lives are typical stories, and never analyzing the political context in which these individuals exist.
When we watch Hollywood fiction films about sports stars, we do not expect political analysis; however, because HOOP DREAMS provides such vivid images of the U.S. urban poor, we want much more than a sports biopic. That a film in mainstream release delivers any glimpses of the reality of life on welfare is a miracle of sorts. However, HOOP DREAMS made it to the mall screens because of its star story-the very element that finally limits it. In the end, the phenomenon of HOOP DREAMS tells us as much about 1990s U.S. political and media culture as it does about basketball or ghetto life.
1. Very few film critics have written about sports films, and even fewer have said anything coherent. However, Thomas Schatz's work, particularly, Hollywood Genre: Formulas, Filmmaking & the Studio System, Philadelphia, 1981, and my colleague Barbara flinger's article, "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism' Revisited: The Progressive Genre," reprinted in The Genre Reader, edited Barry K. Grant, Austin, 1984, as well as other essays in Grant's anthology, supplied an excellent matrix of ideas about genre and ideology to apply to sports films.
2. Louis Giannetti in Understanding Movies, 4th edition, New Jersey, 1988, provided an outstanding discussion on the history of documentary film and the on-going problems confronting documentarists. In the first four editions of his successful textbook, Giannetti included long sections on documentary films, culminating in the chapter on the subject in the fourth edition. His interest reflected the popularity of the form in the late 1960s and 1970s when he began work on his textbook. By the late 1980s, however, the public had so lost interest in documentaries that he dropped the chapter in his fifth and sixth editions and only refers to the form in a few scattered paragraphs in those books.
3. Ray Mark Rinaldi reviewed HOOP DREAMS for the Albany (NY) Times Union on Feb. 16, 1995.
4. The Nexis-Lexis database contains over twenty interviews with the filmmakers, individually as well as in twos and threes, during 1994 and 1995. In almost all of the interviews, the filmmakers claim to have captured the objective truth of the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee. The lawsuit was entitled "St. Joseph High School, et al v. Kartemquin Educational Films and New Line Cinema Corporation." The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Feb 15, 1995, reported on it and the out-of-court settlement.
5. William Gates made his comments about the filmmakers' initial approach on Charlie Rose's PBS program, May 3, 1995.
6. Gates told the Washington Post on May 7, 1995, about how the filmmakers followed him and Agee around.
7. For more statistics and a comprehensive critique of intercollegiate athletics, see my College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. the University, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1991.
8. Steve James told the story about the utility bills to the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 1, 1995.
9. Although the actual term "Meat Market" is not in the film — similar ones are — it is the one used most often by coaches. See College Sports Inc., pages 232-33.
10. Joseph Cunneen, National Catholic Reporter, Mar. 10, 1995.
11. Steve James made his comments about the importance of the Sundance Festival to HOOP DREAMS to the Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 15, 1995,
12. The Nexis-Lexis database contains over five hundred articles on the post-production fate, including the box office receipts, of HOOP DREAMS. There are more articles on the Academy Award flap than on any other aspect of the film.
13. Michael Apted made his comment on the above-mentioned NIGHTLINE program, and host Cokie Roberts validated the players celebrity status at the show's beginning. The People magazine article and headline appeared, April 3, 1995.
14. The Washington Post article on Agee was on May 7, 1995. Agee was released by the USBL team but continued to pursue his playing dream.