Hailed upon its first release as a landmark documentary, ten years down the line Hoop Dreams seems less immediately striking, but then the documentary form has undergone a rapid development of its own over the past decade; the film's quietly observational methodology is almost bound to appear comparatively basic nowadays, even if what it describes is never less than compelling. It's the rise and fall and rise again of two contrasting black teenagers in late 20th century America, united by their love of basketball. Arthur Agee Jr. is a terrifically confident youngster from a tricky, troubled socioeconomic background: faced with a one-and-a-half-hour commute to high school every day, and a drifting father who shows up at an inner city basketball court to score crack from his dealers while his son looks on, it's perhaps no surprise his big-match temperament should prove so shaky. Agee's contemporary William Gates has the support of a loving, stable family, a high-school scholarship, and the President of the Encyclopaedia Britannica herself, but he's prone to recurring injuries and a deep-rooted personal insecurity apparently inherited from his father, which threatens his academic career ("Sometimes you have the right answer, and then you change your mind," a tutor tells him) as well as his progress on court.
Made originally for public television, Hoop Dreams' great virtue is a patience that allows director Steve James a time and space to choose from over five years of material that a work originated for the cinema probably wouldn't have. Playing the long game, in this instance, pays off in such striking developments as Agee's first transformation from combative, serious-faced street kid to a giggling slacker barely able to look people in the eye. What's interesting, from a cinematic perspective, is how the "circle of life" motif evident in such urban dramas as Menace II Society manifests itself (or is made to manifest itself) in the real life James films here. As the boys' high-school coach remarks, "One walks out the door, another one walks in the door"; at any given point, one of the boys is on the way up, while - on the other side of the American wheel of fortune - one is on the slide, an often painful dichotomy that makes you wonder how the filmmakers achieved such a clean and lucky break in the first place. While Gates and his illustrious teammates enjoy takeout pizza courtesy of the Nike summer camp, Agee is earning $3.35 per hour slinging slices at the Hut. Few films have better illustrated both sides of the coin via a single cut. A fascinating piece of evidence in the nature-vs-nurture debate, Hoop Dreams also offers a document of the changing face of ghetto fashion from the mid-80s onwards; a surprising, pointed cameo from Spike Lee, presumably invited to that summer camp to deliver a rousing speech, who instead reminds the players that they're no more than cogs in a machine (the American collegiate basketball system) designed to make money; and several moments of grace besides. It's there in James's filming of Gates's wife fast asleep, babe in arms, at one of the biggest games of her husband's season; in Agee's loafing about, shooting shadow hoops, as his mother does her hair ahead of a community-college graduation; and especially when Gates returns, alone, to his grammar-school gym - away from all the hoopla of coach, crowds and scouts, just a boy, a ball and a basket.
Hoop Dreams is available to stream via MUBI, Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video.