Winning Is the Only Thing
Hoop Dreams put Steve James and company on the map. The Interrupters having just opened to unanimous praise, he is all over the place now, accompanied by friend and collaborator Alex Kotlowitz. The director-writer-producer-cameraman appears on public radio, at a theatrical-release Q&A and another at the Maysles Cinema “Master Class” series of two other of his non-fictions followed by a weeklong theatrical screening of the current festival-favorite release. Essential in that Maysles three is that 1994 Sundance documentary Audience Award-winner and NYFF closing-night feature, Hoop Dreams.
Among the earliest films shot in video then transferred to 35mm, the latter expanded beyond an originally planned PBS half-hour but runs long at minutes shy of three hours (from two hundred fifty of footage). It digs deep into its then-unusual milieu of African-American ghetto culture through the prism of its aspirations and the reality that hedges them in. In terms of technique, the filmmaker has honed the direct cinema-verité approach of absenting himself and crew from what the lens records, though none of the films -- done in his Virginia hometown, the third is last year’s No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson -- evidences an intrusive “outside” guiding presence. Inspired by Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A., HD nevertheless features the most of James, mainly as semi-sports-TV-announcer voice explaining game situations frankly better left to pure visuals.
This, Ebert’s “best film of the 1990s,” is major league compared to cloying 1986 crowd-pleaser Hoosiers aka Best Shot and to most other feel-good fictions of sports as metaphor for the redemptive in the American Way of Life. Covering the same material, it slam-dunks documentaries like Through the Fire: the Sebastian Telfair Story that are so close-up to their subjects that they cannot note the irony of adult commercialism and hard-sell hoopla overwhelming barely literate kids.
Irony that comes with hindsight is in the trajectory of Isiah Thomas, the St. Joseph High alumnus idolized herein as much as Michael Jordan and who went on to NCAA and NBA fame but twenty-five years later tarnished everything with very public disgraces as coach and as human being.
Over four-plus years, the film follows two fourteen-year-olds of grade-school promise, for whom the only illusion of a way out lies in a big-time pro contract. Locked into a culture and social level, neither William Gates nor Arthur Agee has the foggiest about the odds against, as the dream goal becomes their lifeblood and, with hardly more mature perspective, a vicarious fulfillment for family members who fell short along the way.
Academic non-preparation ignored, the two fourth-grade-level readers are recruited with partial scholarships by suburban St. Joseph’s (which filed a civil suit against the filmmakers and distributor). The less physically and emotionally developed Arthur is a smaller prize, while William is groomed as a future star.
The two, their friends and, especially, family members speak often, of the hardwood, scholastic, social, financial, physical and relationship problems that bar the way. (The Chicago street violence that informs The Interrupters does not enter the picture, although ghetto hopelessness is all around and, later in time and therefore not included, that violence does claim family.)
Few are the adults not swept along with the tide, though youth talent scout Earl Smith subsequently repudiates this “meat market” and regrets his own participation. Arthur is more expendable and, when the Agees fall behind on their share of tuition, is dropped and then picked up to play for public school John Marshall, as black as St. Joseph’s is white. He spearheads the team as far as the state finals, where they lose, and he winds up at a monolithically white junior college in the middle of nowhere.
More polished, William has academic shortcomings, is furnished with a sponsor and undergoes two knee operations which compromise his skills and value for the school’s callous but successful coach Gene “Ping” Pingatore. Marrying the mother of his daughter, he limps to a university but, discouraged, leaves the game, an act symbolized by his ignoring the school’s “Hall of Honors” showcase.
At fancy summer camps sponsored by athletic-gear manufacturers, these and other “student athletes” are tutored and eyeballed by university coaches and their ilk -- Dick Vitale is pricelessly absurd -- and, though sub-educated, are inundated with college catalogues and recruiters, bidding wars and promises. The sad story is a repeat performance of Connie Hawkins’ forgotten marvelous Foul!
(Released by Fine Line Features and rated "PG-13" for drug content and some strong language.)