Hoop Dreams, 20 years later, remains one of the best moviegoing experiences of my lifetime. I use those words organically, but specifically: That phrase, "one of the best moviegoing experiences of my lifetime," was how Roger Ebert (whose avid boostership of the movie is widely considered to be the reason anyone ever saw it) ended his famous review of the film, and those words land like a thunderbolt, today as then. Hoop Dreams is a film that transcends movies, and ennobles them.
I first saw Hoop Dreams in college, in a screening organized by Ebert himself in Champaign, Illinois, where I was a sophomore journalism student. It was at the old Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ebert's favorite theater, and he introduced the film along with Frederick Marx, the film's producer and editor (and a Champaign resident). I had an interview scheduled with Marx for the Daily Illini after the film was over, but I was so stunned by the film -- so blown away by its scope and vast empathy -- that most of my questions felt like the Chris Farley Show. So, remember that time when you followed Arthur Agee to Champaign? That was awesome. I feel fortunate that particular clipping is lost to time.
Hoop Dreams is 20 years old this year, but it's eternal: The film's themes of hope, pain and redemption, its creeping sense that the deck is just stacked against some kids, its seething anger over a system that uses kids and spits them out when they no longer have use for them … those are even more relevant today than they were in 1994. (If anything, today, kids in the position of William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two "stars" of Hoop Dreams have it even harder.) I'm not sure the film would be made the same way today, though. The film is almost too earnest, too invested, too attached; it takes on the veneer of real life that a documentary today would inevitably back away from. The filmmakers love their subjects so much you almost expect them to throw away the camera and move in with them. In a way, I guess they sort of did.
Hoop Dreams is a movie that I try to make sure to watch once a year. It's a film whose truths are so powerful, whose perspective is so focused and yet so warm, that it's like a compass for me: It reminds me of which direction I'm supposed to be going, or at least trying to. (I haven't seen it on the big screen since 1994, but a new print is being shown at the Sundance Film Festival this week.) So I was delighted this morning when The Dissolve, which features the best writing about film every day, posted an extensive, mammoth oral history of Hoop Dreams by writer Jason Guerrasio. The oral history is as full-hearted as the film itself, and it's loaded with little tidbits that hardcore old-school fans of the film will find delightful.
A few, though you should really read the whole thing:
*** The movie was briefly called "Hoopin'," which would have been so much worse.
*** The first person the filmmakers contacted about being in the film was Gene Pingatore, the coach at St. Joseph's High School who turns out to be the primary villain in the movie. (Though as with everything in Hoop Dreams, it's far more complicated than that.)
*** The film covers five years, but over the first two years, the filmmakers had only about 20 days of shooting. Those 20 days cover the first 40 minutes of the film.
*** When you discover, midway through the film, that William Gates has a son, it's a shock. This was by design: The filmmakers were surprised, three years in, to find this out as well, so they decided to "spring it on the audience the same way it was sprung on us."
*** The film was at one point 10 hours long. A grueling cut got it down to six. Eventually, it was chopped to three. An argument could be made it should have been 20.
*** Hoop Dreams was the first film to start out being shot on video and then blown up into a theatrical release.
*** After Siskel & Ebert reviewed the film -- before it even had a distributor, something the show never did -- and Ebert called it, "one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen," one of Madonna's representatives called the filmmakers asking for a print of the film.
*** When the film came out and began to make a profit, the filmmakers wanted to sign a deal with Arthur Agee and William Gates and their families to give them a major portion of the proceeds. Unfortunately, because Agee played for Arkansas State and Gates for Marquette, the NCAA would not allow them to be compensated, lest they lose their amateur status. Eventually, once he graduated, Agee received a check for $64,000. "I signed the check over to my mom and said, 'Now go find that house,'" he said.
I don't want to give away anymore. If you haven't seen Hoop Dreams, it's on Netflix right now: Do so. The film has changed so many lives. You should let it change yours.
* * *