There’s a moment in Hoop Dreams that topples expectations so thoroughly it left me shaken. Filmed over a period of five years, this extraordinary documentary — a movie with more passion and suspense than most dramatic features — immerses us in the lives of two young African-American basketball players from Chicago’s inner city, both of whom have pinned their hopes on making it to the NBA. William Gates, burly but swift, with solemn good looks that recall those of the pop star Bobby Brown, is the more physically imposing of the two. He speeds down the court with precision and drive, his shots landing as if they’d been drawn to the basket by magnetic force. Arthur Agee, a shrimpier kid, quiet but with darting, mischievous eyes, is the more intuitive player, the wild-card show-off; he’s inconsistent, but already his home-cooked moves are dazzling. The two 14-year-olds are recruited by St. Joseph, a mostly white, suburban Catholic high school that boasts a powerhouse basketball program — indeed, it’s the same school that produced Isiah Thomas. For a while, the film generates the euphoria of a gritty sports fairy tale, a real-life Rocky about inner-city underdogs getting on the right track and riding it to the top. And then the unthinkable happens: Arthur is tossed off the track. His impoverished family can’t come up with the tuition, and so he’s forced to leave St. Joseph and enroll in a run-down public school.

As Arthur is hit with this single, piercing setback, we realize that the events in Hoop Dreams aren’t going to unfold according to tidy melodramatic rules — that we’re seeing life in all its precarious complexity. Gradually, our excitement gives way to something deeper, a mingling of hope and anxiety, a sense that in our desire to see William and Arthur succeed, we had only the vaguest notion of what they were up against. Hoop Dreams is about beating the odds in a world where the greater your achievement, the steeper the odds keep getting. The movie is about the risks of dreaming, of wanting more than fate may be prepared to give.

Filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx shot 250 hours of videotape, editing the results down to a leisurely 171-minute epic, a discursive, almost novelistic tapestry of cinema verite and talking-head interviews. As William and Arthur make their way through school, their fortunes ebb and flow, sometimes shifting with wrenching suddenness. William is sidelined by a knee injury; he recovers, but there’s doubt about whether he’ll ever be able to play again with the same confidence. Arthur, just as we’ve begun to count him out, helps lead his team to the city’s championship play-offs. As if the on-court pressures weren’t enough, both players are lackadaisical students who enter high school reading at grade-school levels. When William has to keep retaking the ACTs to qualify for a scholarship to Marquette, the film makes us understand how disadvantaged black high schoolers who see sports as their one true path to success might come to view the rest of school as a joke, an alien universe.

The film’s most tragic figure is William’s older brother, Curtis, a former high school basketball star, now puffy and haunted-looking, his dead dreams an omen of what William could become. Hoop Dreams is an astonishing emotional experience — it has highs, lows, and everything in between — but the film’s devastating upshot is that if you’re from the inner city and are living for your hoop dreams, either you’re good enough to be another Isiah or you’re plumb out of luck. It’s one thing, after all, when dreams open the door to opportunities. It’s quite another when they replace them. A

Hoop Dreams
  • Movie
  • 171 minutes