Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Arthur Agee, William Gates
Director:  Steve James
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  171 Minutes
Release Date:  May 10, 2005

"People ask me will I remember them if I make it...

I tell them, 'Will you remember me if I don't?'"

Film ****

Hoop Dreams is a film that hints at many conventions but defies all of them.  It's a documentary about inner city life, a look at the hopes and dreams that equate to narrow avenues out of poverty, a thrilling sports movie, and an intimate character study.  It began as a short film for PBS, but evolved into a six year project built from the ground up on faith, ambition and determination.  Considering documentary makers don't know how their story or subject matter will eventually end up, it was a risk, but the result was one of the great American movies of all time.

It's a film filled with suspense, love, laughter, fear, outrage, and the many twists and turns that only real life could offer.  Nobody could sit down and write this kind of story...if he or she did, it wouldn't have been touched by any studio because it would have seemed melodramatic.  But so does life from time to time.

It follows two Chicago inner city youths named Arthur Agee and William Gates.  Both are eighth graders when we meet them, and both have notable talent on the basketball court and dreams of being the rare kid who makes it all the way to the NBA.  By the end of the movie, we have followed them for nearly six years.  We've seen their entire high school careers and their first moves into college ball. 

But most of all, we've walked miles in their shoes and those of their families.  We understand what it means to live in a place where reaching your 18th birthday is a true landmark because so many don't make it.  We feel what it's like for families trying to make a better life for their children with meager means and many roads sealed off to them.  We see how dreams can lead to disappointment, as William's older brother Curtis was once named high school player of the decade, but never made it in college or beyond.  Most of all, we come to realize how the love of the game can keep two youths going through hard times, long commutes, and endless hours of work, hope and strife...all to make a near impossible dream into a reality.

I'd love so much to delve into the details of what happens over the film's running time, and moreover, the years of these young men's lives.  But to deprive a first time viewer of the movie's surprises, heartaches and triumphs would be inexcusable.  Seeing these boys grow up before our eyes is extraordinary, but really getting a feel for their lives is even more so.

Oscar's biggest blunders seem to come with the documentary category, and 1994 was a year they'll never live down by failing to nominate this film, which many considered more than worthy of Best Picture recognition, let alone Best Documentary Feature.  The backlash would cause the Academy to shake up their rules and attempt to weed out corruption in the tightly knit voting...it was too little, too late.

There has never been a slice of American life depicted on the screen like Hoop Dreams.  It's not a movie you watch so much as experience to your core.  Your heart will be with these young men and their families every step of the way...each of their moments, both great and grim, are ours for the sharing.  I've never known the person to sit down with this movie and not be completely moved and captivated by it.  We may never see it's like again, but at least we'll always have this one to go back to.

Video ***

Considering this started out as a short documentary for public television, I was very pleased with the full frame offering.  Despite showing videotape transferred to film for most of the running time, the images come across with clarity and cleanliness, with good colors and detail throughout.

Audio ***

The stereo track is lively and dynamic throughout, balancing the all important spoken words against music and sports action.  I noticed no interference or dropouts, and the overall impact is comparable to discs with 5.1 sound.

Features ****

The disc boasts two terrific commentary tracks.  The first, by filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, offers superb insights into the making and development of what became such a lofty project.  The second is even better, featuring Arthur Agee and William Gates.  Watching the movie with their commentary is like seeing a whole new picture, as both young men reflect not only on their experiences as recorded in the movie, but how they led to the lives they had afterward.  For those of us who wanted to see a sequel to this film following up on these people, this commentary suffices pretty well.

The commentary tracks are so good, I would have given the features a four star rating solely based on them, but the disc also includes a trailer, a music video, and a rather interesting collage of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, following them from their initial praise of the film to their efforts to win it Academy recognition and the aftermath, all the way to Ebert naming Hoop Dreams the best film of the 90s.  A typically excellent Criterion booklet filled with essays and photos is also included.


Hoop Dreams offers one of the best and most unique movie watching experiences ever.  It's truly one of the great documentaries, great sports flicks, heck, great films of all time.  Criterion shoots and scores with this remarkable DVD...believe me when I say, no collection is complete without it.

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