NOT TOO MANY FILMMAKERS ARE DEtermined enough, or crazy enough, to devote seven years of their lives to the making of a movie. A movie that has no stars, no script, and was made on a budget that would barely cover the catering costs on "True Lies." Indeed, the odds against Hoop Dreams ever seeing the light of day were overwhelming, for it is a documentary, and the term itself carries such a commercial stigma that only a few are lucky enough to get a theatrical release.
But "Hoop Dreams" has more than good luck on its side: it's one of the richest movie experiences of the year, a spellbinding American epic that holds you firmly in its grip for nearly three hours. Chicago film-makers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, spent four and a half years following two inner-city kids with dreams of NBA glory, William Gates and Arthur Agee, basketball prodigies whose hopes of escaping the hazards of the ghetto rest on their hardwood performance. With an intimacy that never seems intrusive, "Hoop Dreams" tracks them through high school up to the brink of college. We watch two boys turn into young men before our eyes. And we see a portrait of inner-city struggle and survival shorn of the sound-bite cliches of TV and the sensationalist reductionism of Hollywood 'hood fields. "Hoop Dreams" has all the suspense of a soap opera, but without the manipulation. It lets us draw our own conclusions, never forcing the story to fit a preordained agenda, never making easy generalizations out of the lives it examines with such cleareyed generosity.
At 14, Gates and Agee are given financial aid to attend St. Joseph's, a suburban Catholic high school that prides itself for producing superstar Isiah Thomas. The quiet Gates, who lives in the Cabrini Green project and enters school at a fifth-grade academic level, is the blue-chip prospect, in whom coach Gene Pingatore sees a ghm-met of the Thomas magic. Agee is the gangly speedster, a diamond in the rough. He has to make a three-hour round trip to St. Joseph's, where there are more white faces than he's ever seen. By sophomore year, Gates is on the honor roll, and Agee, whose father has been laid off, is forced to transfer to all-black Marshall High School.
You think you can see which way fate's arrows are pointing, but life isn't so predictable. One kid is felled by a knee injury, and has to undergo surgery. We're startled to learn that, in his junior year, Gates becomes a father. Agee's father deserts his family, and we see him on a playground where Arthur is shooting hoops, a stumbling figure scoring drugs. We get a haunting view of Gates's older brother, Curtis. A former basketball whiz deemed "uncoachable," he invests all his blasted NBA fantasies in his younger brother. There are heartbreaking, exhilarating ups and downs-a family plunged into darkness when their electricity is cut off; the pride of Arthur's mother when she graduates from a nurse's assistant's course; the nail-biting state championships.
The movie captures the meat-market frenzy of the basketball camps, where college recruiters come to salivate over the hot prospects, and the hard-sell pressure they put on the boys. A friend succumbs to the temptation of drug dealing and gets caught. The stakes in this movie couldn't be higher. When Mrs. Agee celebrates her son's birthday, her gratitude is not for his accomplishment on the court, but that he's managed to live to 18. This is a portrait of inner-city America as complex, moving and surprising as any film has given us.
When James and Marx--later joined by cinematographer Gilbert-conceived of this project, in 1987, they thought it would be a 80-minute film about the culture of inner-city playground basketball. With $2,500 in grants and the producing help of Kartemquin Films, they began to look for their subjects. The first week of shooting they met Agee and Gates, and quickly realized that their plans had to be drastically revised: these were kids they had to follow, wherever it led.
It led them eventually to shoot 250 hours of film, almost every game and major event in the boys' lives. The project struggled through the first three years on only $2,500. (Later they got $70,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation grant.) Everyone had a second job. Marriages were strained, debts accumulated and the filmmakers grew more and more attached to their subjects. Peter Gilbert's wife, Dru, recalls: "What really got to me was when things were not going well with the families. Peter would come home adding misery to the pile. But then our problems would look minuscule in comparison to theirs."
"There were times when it was difficult to separate the roles of filmmaker/observer and extended family friend," admits Steve James. When the Agees' power was shut off, the filmmakers pulled some money together to restore it. It was the one moment when they clearly stepped beyond their roles as documentarians. "We weren't just going to exploit their pain and suffering. They say that to be a great documentary film-maker you have to be cutthroat and not get involved. But if that's what it takes, then we don't want to be great documentary filmmakers."
"Hoop Dreams" had its triumphant premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience award and found a distributor, Fine Line Features. It was the first documentary ever chosen for closing night at the New York Film Festival. (And recently St. Joseph's and coach Pingalore brought a lawsuit against the film, claiming it depicts the school "in a false and untrue light.") It's even generating spinoffs: there's a book and possibly a fictionalized TV movie; an album, single and video of Ben Sidran's fine jazz and rap score are in the works, and hats and T shirts will be sold to benefit inner-city programs.
The bitter irony is that William Gates and Arthur Agee have not been able to share in the glory. Because they are college players, the NCAA has forbidden them from sharing in the proceeds or talking about the movie: their comments would be considered commercial endorsements. "We are in an appeal process to get them to let us compensate the families for their involvement," says James. So far, the NCAA is holding firm. "Do they want to play basketball or do they want to be movie stars?" says the NCAA's Mike Racy. "Under our rules they can't do both." The NCAA, which ought to have better things to worry about, has an odd idea of what a movie star is. But "Hoop Dreams" has shown us that the rules of the game are stacked against kids like Gates and Agee. Even better, it shows us how they fight back, with the inside moves of hope.