Weekend Film Recommendation: Hoop Dreams

Filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert started with the idea of making a 30 minute TV show about kids playing basketball at an urban playground. Instead they got pulled into the lives of two remarkable families and you will be too by the astounding 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.

The film follows two African-American basketball players for five years as they grow from boys to men in Chicago. Both have been scooped up as potential basketball stars by an ambitious coach at a white suburban high school (Is this an opportunity or just exploitation? The film doesn’t flinch from this question.). When one of them, Arthur Agee, doesn’t do well academically (or is it just that his white coach thought he wasn’t a good enough player?) he is sent back to his local high school where his sports career prospers in new ways. The other young man, William Gates, fares better in the burbs at first but then his life takes some turns that I will not ruin for you by telegraphing.

Among the things that amaze about this film is the access everyone gave to the filmmakers. The boys themselves, the coaches and their friends are all remarkably candid in the interviews. And the Agee and Gates families open up their personal lives to an almost unbelievable extent. The amount of intimacy they let the viewer have at some of the most critical moments of their lives is a true gift.

The other impressive thing about Hoop Dreams is that despite an almost three hour running time (edited down from a reported more than 250 hours of footage!) it holds your interest at every moment. Personally, I tend to be pretty hard on movies that run more than two hours without an exceptional reason. Here, I was riveted throughout and indeed would have loved more.

Finally, just as a comment on inner city life, which this film so well captures, it is quite sad that a number of people in this film have been murdered since the film’s release, including William’s older brother and Arthur’s father-in-law.

With respect, I would argue that even the fans of this film sometimes underestimate its worth. They are angry that it wasn’t nominated for a best documentary oscar. That was indeed an outrage, but in a year when Forrest Gump won Best Picture, the nominators in that category should have hung their heads too (Kudos to the “thumbs-up” guys for being the first ones to figure this out at the time). Also, people often call this a great film about inner-city existence or low-income Black Americans. Yes, it is those wonderful things but it’s also more than that, it’s a film about life, family and growing up with which anyone with a heart and a mind can connect emotionally. That’s why it’s not just a great documentary; it’s a great work of art.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Hoop Dreams”


    It’s a great movie and one of the things that struck me the most was that even though the path to the NBA runs through college basketball — or did at that time — and even though an athlete still has to have a certain score on college admissions tests, NO ONE at the suburban school seemed to be at all concerned about Gates’ academic performance, ever.

  2. I’ve been meaning to see this film since its release. Your post has finally got me to start streaming it on Netflix. I’m about an hour in and it’s great. James’ other films are excellent as well. Prefontaine was a really good. I’d also highly recommend Stevie, another documentary in which issues of rural class, family, criminal justice, and film making itself are explored in depth. His latest, The Interrupters, looks brilliant as well.

  3. This is also one of my all-time favorite films. So many documentaries, even good documentaries, impose a strong narrative on the events portrayed. In Hoop Dreams the film-makers manage to find the vital heart of the story without imposing their own voice on the events. The ups and downs have so much more relevance portrayed in this manner.

    BTW, I think the new ‘Film Recommendations’ feature is a winner. I actually re-watcher My Favorite Year after KH’s post last week and now I will likely do the same with Hoop Dreams. I hope you continue this series!

    1. Sven: Thanks, that is good for hear. For years my friends have been asking me to recommend movies for them and now I am finally getting around to it.

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