The 'Hoop Dreams' is one of the best documentaries ever made, in fact it may be one of the best films ever made.
It follows the stories of two young African American men (William Gates and Arthur Agee) and their families as they attempt to realise their dreams and escape the ghetto through basketball. The documentary follows the boys through four years of High School and on to college.
It is a moving, sometimes heartbreaking film that allows you to accompany the boys on their journey and on the way provides great insight into the wider issues. In many ways Hoop Dreams is a classical documentary - the filmmakers shot hours footage and then edited it down to the three hour film. There is very little editorial, they simply show us the edited highlights of what they recorded and allow the viewers to draw their own conclusions. This approach allows the filmmakers (and us) to examine not just high-school basketball but also the wider racial and social issues.
I am not sure that it is possible to spoil the plot of a documentary but if you want it to be a surprise, read no further....
The story beings with St Joseph's - an up market high school - recruiting both boys on partial scholarships. William is an instant success - even from the brief clips it is obvious he has an amazing talent for basketball - he makes the school first team as a freshman (very uncommon) and looks to have a professional career in front of him. Arthur is a different story. He has talent but he seems to lack the maturity to utilise it and he is kicked out of school at the end of his freshman year for unpaid school fees. William, the potential star, has been found a personal sponsor who pays the rest of his tuition ensuring that he can stay in school, there is a strong implication that if Arthur had been a better player sponsorship would have been found for him as well. The school emerges with no great credit over their treatment of Arthur as over the next few years they ruthlessly pursue his family for the money, withholding his school records to make life very difficult for him at his new school. Sadly things turn sour for William as well, he gets injured and then re-injured playing when he should not. Although his physical injuries heal he is never the same player again.
Even from the start, the extent to which their families are pinning all their hopes on the two boys is terrifying and heartbreaking (we know the odds are stacked against them). They both live in a very poor and dangerous neighbourhood - with the other members of their family working at minimum wage jobs to try to keep the family afloat - basketball is their only way out, their only chance to live the American dream. William has an older brother, Curtis, who had the talent but not the temperament to make it as a basketball player; he now lives vicariously through William, simply adding to the pressure. Arthur's dad has problems with drugs and domestic violence that tear his family apart.
There can be few more tragic scenes ever filmed than the segment showing Arthur shooting hoops at the local playground while his Dad scores drugs in the background. Equally unforgettable is the scene where Arthur, just before he leaves for college, plays basketball with his Dad and the years of repressed anger explode. In many ways the most memorable moment from the whole film is the line uttered by William at the end; it seems to sum up the predicament of these boys. "People say, 'When you make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' I feel like telling them, 'Well, if I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me.' "
This is a fabulous film - watch it you can find it - you will not be disappointed. The only disappointment is that the DVD does not provide an update to what happened to the two boys and their families