Jaime on Criterion: Hoop Dreams Review - NP Approved

By Jaime Burchardt


Hoop Dreams (1994)

Director: Steve James
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary | Drama | Sport
Official Site: Here

Editor’s Notes: The following review marks the start of Jaime’s bi-weekly Criterion review series where he will explore the depths of the Criterion Collection.

Leaving behind one of Japan’s greatest gifts was hard to do, for my first stop on my new journey through the Criterion collection. As I walk on my path, I start to get the feeling I might be back in my home country of North America. Turns out I’m in Chicago, in an empty basketball court. It’s worn down. The nets a barely there; maybe a few strands are left on the orange hooks. A lot of dreams were gained here. Also, a lot of punishment, and defeat. It was all around me. This is just one of the settings for one of the most acclaimed documentaries of all time, Hoop Dreams.

The mid-90’s was my time of development, so watching acclaimed documentarian Steve James (The Interrupters) capture the that time was an ultimate sort of flashback. Now I didn’t have the upbringing that the two subjects here had, but that wasn’t going to stop James and his cameras obsessed for the story. Said story, both in front and behind said cameras, is severely attractive. This was originally meant to be a 30-minute segment for PBS, but apparently James and his crew couldn’t stop. Thank god. What started as a summer assignment turned into a five-year fascination into a great unknown. Whether they liked it or not, Arthur Agee and William Gates were about to have their lives turned every which way.

 The realities that set in for Agee and Gates are daunting, and it builds and builds creating a wall that these men can either break down or build their future around.

We see Agee and Gates from when they’re young, fresh to the apparent world of possibilities through professional basketball. Talks and images of Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan come around from time to time, to remind them and me of what dream is, incarnate. Both boys want to play in the NBA. Both want to provide for their families. And right at the start of this epic piece, their dreams of basketball cannot and will not be shattered. Both start off their high school years at a common school, St. Joseph’s. By the time sophomore year hits for both of them, they go on very…very different paths. As before, I dare not say how that comes out. I say to you, see for yourself; witness their turbulent journeys first hand….

hoop-dreams…And yet, I know that’s a lot to ask. Clocking it at 171 minutes, this is without a doubt the longest documentary I’ve ever seen. By no means did I feel it’s length, but I can say, in complementary form, that one of the end results here was one of absolute exhaustion. While I can’t discredit documentaries or personal stories of struggles ending in absolute success, to see a story told at face-point value is refreshing, and disparaging at the same time. Agee and Gates experience a roller coaster that only a few people in the world’s population can relate to through experience. I’m not a ball player (although I used to play as a kid and it used to be my favorite sport), I’ve never tried to go pro in any sport, but thanks to the brilliant job James did here, this is the closest you or I can ever come to relating to something like this. Imagine being the walls and roof, housing the chaos and heartbreak and victories. It’s not yours, but the vibe of all the captured footage echoes all around you. That’s how I felt. Feelings could not and did not escape me.

The results are actually surprising, and at the same time, not. I felt like I was right along side their tears and defeats. 

The realities that set in for Agee and Gates are daunting, and it builds and builds creating a wall that these men can either break down or build their future around. The results are actually surprising, and at the same time, not. I felt like I was right along side their tears and defeats. And then life gave them some tastes of positivity and triumph, and my pulse grew fonder as well. The roughest and prettiest aspect about Hoop Dreams is the cavalier way that James refused to play favorites to the emotions; to the heartbeat of the story. Life is made out of cruelty, and it’s also made out of hope. To have reminders of both can construct a person’s foundation for years to come, and James must believe in this. He must. Over the years my level of cynicism has been increasing, despite my overall belief in being optimistic. This film brought out my cynicism, saying out loud “well of course that’s going to happen if you do this.” But by the end, with spots in between, my true nature won out, hoping and praying for these boys to find happiness. I thank Steve James for presenting a leveled balance. It wore me out though.

The last bit of crumbs I leave behind as I continue my journey through this catalog is one that reminds me of the good old days. Roger Ebert loved this film so much he named it the best 1994 had to offer, and he created a public outcry when it was nominated for an Oscar for its editing but not in the Best Documentary category (and that in itself led to a revealing of the voting system for that category that was just a joke…but you can look at that up another time). Even after my experience with Hoop Dreams is over, my brain thinks for a split second if going the documentary route was the best idea. But there’s a reason it’s a Criterion selection. Whether it’s fictional or not, a great story is a great story. And thanks to James, Hoop Dreams is nothing short of a brilliant narrative of true events.

The sounds of dribbling fade as I walk away, leaving the court behind. I continue forth through my journey, through that thick fog. But even through that, I think I see signs of a flag. It appears to be a German flag…

96/100 ~ MASTERFUL. There’s a reason Hoop Dreams has the reputation it has. If you haven’t seen it yet, set aside three hours to bare witness to one of the best documented looks at the chase we all go through, the chase of our dreams.

My head's been consumed the art of movies & its creation ever since I was old enough to know what the word 'consumed' meant. The only way to reduce the pressure buildup is to write, edit, and direct. Chocolate milk also helps.
  • Adam Moody

    Great review. Three hours long, and I would’ve watched it for six.

  • Chris D. Misch

    I’ve never seen Hoop Dreams…..