Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blood on the basketball

Note: This post is part of the Dads in Media Blog-a-Thon at Strange Culture.

Its name is Hoop Dreams, but very little of it is about basketball. The most memorable scene in the movie is a basketball game, but not once during the scene do you feel like you're watching a basketball game. Still with me? One of the main reasons Hoop Dreams made such an impact in 1994 and continues to be relevant is the fact that the documentary's primary themes and subjects persist. The documentary chronicles two rising basketball players through high school, but what gets in the way of their visions of swishing baskets is what keeps you glued to the screen for 171 minutes. The cameras of Steve James capture many unintended moments of crushing drama, and the most powerful is a father and son relationship that effectively ends with the drop of a sweet 12-foot jump shot.

We meet Arthur "Bo" Agee as he's eagerly discussing his son Arthur's prospects as a basketball player, which have led him to a scholarship from the prestigious St. Joseph High School outside Chicago. Bo speaks in glowing terms, but it's obvious that while he's excited about his son's success, he's also giddy about what it may mean to he and his family. Arthur idolizes NBA superstar Isaiah Thomas, and since basketball scouts have compared his son to the Pistons point guard, perhaps a future NBA career isn't out of the question. Hoop Dreams paints a portrait of Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood as a place where escape is only possible through unlikely feats like a pro sports career, and the local playground is full of kids like Arthur preparing for just such a leap.

Hoop Dreams hits you with its first dramatic punch when we abruptly learn that Bo has left his family and fallen into drugs again. Bo's disastrous behavior coincides with his son facing the reality at St. Joseph that there are plenty of rising basketball stars in the city, and he's just one of them. With only Arthur's mother, Sheila, to support the family, the boy's scholarship at St. Joseph comes into question and he is forced to withdraw and enroll at a public school.

Arthur never speaks about his father's transgressions, but there are several times when his silence tells us everything. When the power is shut off in their apartment, Arthur walks silently through the house with a candle and into his room, knowing the darkness is caused by his cowardly father. And in one of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie, Bo abruptly shows up at the playground while Arthur is shooting hoops. After trying (and failing) to dunk, Bo walks down to the edge of the playground where we see him flash some dollars to a small group of men. James' camera catches this perfectly as we see it through the silent eyes of Arthur, knowing exactly what is transpiring.

The silence grows when Bo returns to the family after some sort of spiritual awakening, escorting the family to church on his first weekend back. Bo's face is full of optimism, but his son appears to see through this act, perhaps curious how it coincided with his improving basketball success at high school. And when Arthur leads his school on an unlikely deep trip into the state playoffs, Bo is right there alongside him with the same fire in his eyes we saw in the beginning. Throughout the playoff run, Bo has the look of a fan and never has the courage to offer his son any real advice or encouragement before the games.

So it's little wonder that Arthur and his mom Sheila give a half laugh in disbelief as Bo tries to give some objective parental opinion as his son weighs a scholarship offer. It's not from Indiana or Illinois, but rather a downtrodden junior college in rural Missouri. Arthur and his mom know it's probably his best (and only) chance at a college career, while Bo is visibly disappointed that his son's late-blooming high school career didn't result in more interest from recruiters. After signing the scholarship offer, James immediately turns our attention to Bo and Arthur on the playground court, surrounded by well-wishing onlookers.

What starts as Bo playing around showing the ball skills he still has, devolves into a heated one-on-one between father and son. Arthur's motivation in the game is clear: showing his father what he achieved in his absence, and how he will never sink to the depths of his elder. Bo's intentions are a little foggier -- by trying his hardest to win, he may be attempting to show Arthur how there's no way out of Cabrini-Green, and that inevitably he'll end up just like his old man. As the game goes on and Arthur continues to get the best of his old man, things get chippier with Bo starting to get more physical and even shove his son as he puts in a lay-up. When Bo disputes the score, Arthur lets his emotions and memories spill out.

"Ain't no con game going on anymore, Dad," he says. "I'm older now."

He's not falling for his father's tricks like he might have at a younger age, he's settling this on the court with one more shot. With Arthur at the top of the key, Bo lays off his son to guard against a drive to the hoop, and like the cold-blooded scorer he is, Arthur takes this challenge by launching a jumper that goes right through. Game over. Arthur lets his game do the talking and leaves the court, while Bo mutters some frustration-filled excuses.

Bo Agee was murdered in 2004.


Anonymous said...

I love this film. It ranks as my favorite doc, but also in my top 10 films.

It was out of print for so long, and never received a DVD release until Criterion rightfully put out an amazing disc. If you haven't watched this version, I highly recommend it. The commentary is a revelation into both the film and the lives of the participants.

Why this film isn't celebrated more is beyond me. If I remember correctly, even upon release it struggled to gain attention as well.

Anonymous said...

As a Chicagoan, I remember the Marshall High miracle season, and it was thrilling to see it captured on film in such a wide-ranging examination.

I recommended this film to everyone I knew. One guy said he didn't want to see it because it was "too depressing." I'm not sure where that came from, but I do know that a lot white folks in Chicago were not interested in this film. Their loss.

Adam Ross said...

Matt -- it's a great DVD, and the movie is definitely worthy of Criterion's treatment. Still haven't gotten around to listening to the commentary, but I have high hopes for it.

Marilyn -- So the Marshall run was a pretty big sensation, is it the private schools that usually make it to state? I've followed Chicago high school hoops a little recently because Oregon has the area's three biggest recruits heading west next year: Michael Dunigan, Matthew Humphries and Josh Crittle.

And about the movie being "too depressing," I meant to include in this post about what a triumph it is to see Sheila graduate from her nursing program. It's such an uplifting moment after seeing how hard she worked to provide for her family.

Anonymous said...

Adam - I'm no expert on h.s. basketball, but the well-heeled schools like St. Joe's are either private or suburban. Chicago Public Schools are always strapped for cash and have inadequate phys ed facilities.

The thing about the Marshall year was that the coverage on TV and newspapers built up the excitement. The only thing I can remember feeling this way about was the 1980 US Hockey Team win at the Olympics; I watched one game after another, and a feeling of anticipation of seeing something special, just kept building.

I think "depressing" was a code word for "black." I agree that despite the ups and downs of the families, there was so much in it that was uplifting. Agree about Sheila's graduation; it brought tears of pride to my eyes.

I would recommend a documentary called Rocks with Wings for a similar story.

jasdye said...

wonderful movie. wonderful insights.

i would agree with you, matt, in that it is also my fav doc and one of my top ten films of all time. as far as the lack of general popularity, it was pretty popular in my circles in chicago. (disclaimer: i got to know Will Gates and play ball with him and Arthur quite a bit. but will was/is famous around these parts for that movie and was able to use that fame as a bit of a catapult in public relations.)

siskel and ebert enthused and gushed all over that movie. (in fact, ebert called it one of his favorite - what? - five movies of the 90's. i think #2 behind Goodfellas.

as far as the Oscars, though, i understand that the nominating committee decided to name lesser-known films. which was really, really stupid. (and consider, this was long before Fahrenheit 9/11).

another comment: actually it's not so much the lack of facilities (which is true), but more so the lack of coaches/coaching that does chicago kids in. coaches - even head coaches - here are volunteers for the most part. they may or may not get paid a small stipend for their work. underpaid, understaffed, overtaxed.

anyway, came here through RC's mother-load on Fathers-In-Media.

Adam Ross said...

Jasdye - thanks for the comments, I had heard William and Arthur had grown up to lead fruitful lives, good to know. Volunteer high school coaches? Wow, and I'm sure the private schools poach talent that would have ended up in public schools

Daniel said...

Great profile of this one - it's a classic. Apparently Adam Yauch's upcoming Gunnin' For That #1 Spot is supposed to be as good, but I just can't imagine!