16 January 2008

Hoop Dreams

This movie blew me away. It's brilliantly understated and incredibly poignant. 

The film is a documentary about two kids from the 'hood who are fantastic b-ball players and are trying to make it to the NBA. At the start of the movie, both get recruited by a neighborhood talent scout and get a chance to try out for the team at a fairly fancy Chicago high school. The film basically tracks their lives over the next 4 years. It's a really fascinating example, to me, of documentary film-making, in that it's incredibly minimalist. The movie touches on so many questions of race, class, and athletic culture, but it rarely states anything explicitly. There's one moment, just a brief snippet of Spike Lee talking that basically sums up the scene, for me - it's all about money. These kids are basically being exploited for their basketball skills, which will ultimately make other people plenty of money, and none of the schools wooing them gives a shit about their lives. But that split second of Spike Lee is all you get in terms of assessment - other than that, the movie lets everyone speak for themselves. 

It's a pretty heart-rending tale, actually, and all the more so because it isn't bogged down with sentimentalization. One of the kids, Arthur Agee, has to leave his high school after a year because his parents can't afford to keep sending him there. He goes back to a public school, where he continues to play ball and does pretty well in terms of sports. A few commentators - his mother, the coach at his new school - point out that had he been a better ball player, the school would have found a way to keep him there, but seeing as how he couldn't quite make the cut on the team, they didn't mind letting him go. It's quite a contrast to the other kid, William Gates, whose knee surgeries and rehab get funded by the school. And the movie definitely lets Arthur's devastated disappointment at having to leave the school come through. 

I really appreciated, too, how the movie shows you plenty of their personal lives, but in a way that isn't intrusive or tell-all. We find out that William had a baby almost as a side-note. Certainly, as becomes clear, it's a major part of his life, but the movie doesn't go so far as to dig into the story and find out how it happened. And while William tells us himself that being a father and balancing school, parenthood, and basketball is a real struggle for him, we don't get to see everything going on behind the scenes. Likewise, the various comings and goings of Arthur's father, and his time in rehab, are reported but not delved into in detail. I felt like the movie did a really good job of respecting the privacy of the people involved while also showing you how much is going on in these kids' lives. And what's happening out side of school is part of the film's ultimate message - one of the most powerful moments, for me, is when William talks about how he came to his coach and tried to talk to him about the problems he was having at home, conflicts between his family and that of his child's mother's, and the coach told him to "write them off". William's sense of hurt and outrage are expressed in muted but forceful terms.

What I also found somewhat devastating was the education side of it. Much as various school officials insist that it's education first and basketball second, it's pretty obviously bullshit. And you can't just blame the schools for that - as is repeatedly pointed out by Arthur's teachers, he'll do the minimum needed to get by. What he wants to do is play ball, not learn Spanish. But I dunno, I feel like those two guys got left behind in a major way. I guess it's that nobody ever seemed to care much about their academics, so long as they were getting by, that was good enough. Their families want them to get a diploma, but nobody seems to take the time to actually engage them and tell them to use their heads. I wonder, the moment when William gets his ACT scores back and finds out that after taking the test 5 times, he's finally, barely, managed to get the minimum score needed to qualify for a sport's scholarship, and he says it's the best feeling he ever had - what is it that's making him feel so good right then? And perhaps there's something about it that could be developed into something further? Because yes, a lot of the problem is probably them not making an effort, because they don't much care about academics, but I think that feeling is a bit more complicated than them just wanting to play basketball. 

Anyhow, it's an amazing movie. Highly, highly recommended.

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