Two ordinary inner-city Chicago kids dare to reach for the impossible—professional basketball glory—in this epic chronicle of hope and faith. Filmed over a five-year period, 'Hoop Dreams,' by Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert follows young Arthur Agee and William Gates as they navigate the complex, competitive world of scholastic athletics while dealing with the intense pressures of their home lives and neighborhoods. This landmark film, which documents the journeys of two remarkable families, continues to educate and inspire viewers, and it is widely considered one of the great works of American nonfiction cinema.
Long before our televisions got filled with reality shows, and even a little before film documentaries were a popular option on home video and in theaters around the world, there was 'Hoop Dreams' – a look at the lives of two up-and-coming high school kids with hopes of making it all the way to the NBA. If 'Hoop Dreams' was just a movie about sports, it probably would have come and gone. But it's so much more than that. It's an inside look at two families growing up in the inner city of Chicago, and all the trials and tribulations that come with it. Even 20 years later, 'Hoop Dreams' resonates, because many of the problems/issues that were in society in the early 90s are still with us today.
Filmmakers Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert, and Steve James (who directed) spent eight years bringing 'Hoop Dreams' to the screen, and five years actually filming the events in the lives of the two young men who are the focal points of the movie. Their names are Arthur Agee and William Gates, and 'Hoop Dreams' introduces us to them both in their freshman year of high school, where both young men leave their local public school and join the much more upper-class St. Joseph's High School, which recruits young basketball talent from the greater Chicago area.
Early on, it becomes obvious that William may have more pure basketball talent between the two young men. He's put on St. Joseph's varsity squad, while Arthur struggles more and is eventually dismissed from the school when his parents can no longer afford to pay for it (William, on the other hand, gets a donor to sponsor his education there). So while Arthur is forced to continue his basketball dreams back at his local high school, William stays at St. Joseph's through his senior year. However, a nagging and continuing knee injury threatens to derail both William's high school basketball career as well as his hopes for a college one.
One doesn’t need to be a fan of basketball to be engaged in 'Hoop Dreams', as there's so much more going on here than just these two young men's athletics. It's their home lives that really engage the viewer, particularly (at least for me), young Arthur's – who has a dad who goes in and out of his life during the course of the film, including a stint in jail for drugs. In many ways, the father is as much of a pivotal character in 'Hoop Dreams' as the two boys are, as we watch a man who is struggling with many demons in his life but still has an obvious love for his son and wants to see him do well.
The legacy of 'Hoop Dreams' is that, sadly, not a whole lot has changed in American life in the 20 years since this documentary came out. Racism and poverty are still a big issue, particularly in the inner cities of large metropolises. Crime and drug addiction still riddle many of our communities. And, perhaps more sadly, high school and college sports are still about the almighty dollar and less about the well-being and education of students who have an athletic gift.
At nearly three-hours in length, 'Hoop Dreams' may sound like a daunting challenge to sit through for the uninitiated, however, it's anything but that. Not only does the time fly by, but the extended length enables the viewer to become more engaged in the two families that are presented here, which makes their triumphs along the way more inspiring and their failures more heartbreaking. There's little doubt that 'Hoop Dreams' had a big influence on the type of 'reality' TV we see today, but there's one big exception: there's no manipulation by the filmmakers to help make their movie 'better'. What we get here is reality in its rawest form, and that's what makes 'Hoop Dreams' one of the best documentaries ever made.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hoop Dreams' shoots its way onto Blu-ray in a standard Criterion keepcase (produced by Scanavo), which houses the 50GB Blu-ray disc, along with a fold-out leaflet, which sadly Criterion now seems to be using instead of producing a nice booklet. The leaflet features photos, a cast list, and technical info on one side, and a pair of essays on the reverse side: one by writer John Edgar Wideman, and the other by filmmaker/writer Robert Greene.
Like the majority of Criterion releases, there are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray, whose menu looks like a typical Criterion one, with selections along the left side of the screen and a montage of video footage from the movie playing in the background.
The Blu-ray is Region A locked.
'Hoop Dreams' was originally shot on video and then transferred to 35mm film for its theatrical exhibition back in 1994 (remember, there were no digital theaters back then). For this new remaster, Criterion has gone back to the Betacam source and created an HD master of the movie, which is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
Given that the movie was shot on non-HD video, it is, of course, only going to look so good in the 1080i format (I'm assuming Criterion didn't go full 1080p here because it would have added nothing to the final resolution of the movie). Considering both the age and the format of the source material, 'Hoop Dreams' looks about as good as one could hope for on Blu-ray, and seems to have a little more color and clarity that the previous Criterion release on DVD. There are still issues with jagged lines and inconsistency between shots, but this is probably the best the movie has looked on home video (including how it looked in the theater for that matter), and probably the best it's ever going to look. Any digital glitches in the video that were part of the 1994 home video version also appear to have been removed/cleaned up for this latest release.
Criterion has taken the original 2.0 surround audio for 'Hoop Dreams' and provided viewers/listeners with a new 4.0 DTD-HD Master Audio soundtrack, that helps separate the sounds out a little more and make the movie feel a little more immersive, although this is still very much a 'talking heads' film with the dialogue all coming from the front. Here, the rears are used primarily to enhance the musical score, as well as some of the crowd noises and cheering that take place in the various basketball games that occur during the presentation. There are also no issues with the track in terms of hissing, popping, dropouts, or other glitches.
In addition to the lossless audio, subtitles are available in English SDH.
One of the most enduring documentaries in film history, 'Hoop Dreams' is more than just a story about sports, it's a movie that captures a piece of American life and proves to be just as powerful and moving today as it was over 20 years ago. Criterion has done a nice job with this Blu-ray release, which every serious collector of film will want to have in their collection. This is a Must-Own.