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Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx's Hoop Dreams

By Scott Foundas

The orange-and-black striped ball spins through the air, hovers uncertainly at the net, and in that seemingly endless instant, entire lives hang in the balance. Not just those of the young, uniformed men on the court, but of fathers and brothers who once dreamed of NBA stardom themselves, of mothers who send their sons out into dangerous streets each day and pray they will come home alive, and of coaches who burn with desire for conference titles and state championships. Indeed, no other movie has ever made us feel the agony and potential ecstasy of a single jump shot, or even a free throw, in quite the same way as producer/director Steve James, cinematographer/producer Peter Gilbert and producer/editor Frederick Marx's Hoop Dreams.

We are not long into this extraordinary record of five years in the lives of two young, inner-city Chicago basketball stars before we realize that--for Arthur Agee and William Gates--each time they reach for the basket they are reaching for a college scholarship, for a future outside of the ghetto, for a better life. Yet, for all the time Hoop Dreams spends on the court, and in the lion's den of fast-talking college recruiters, what lingers most in the memory 13 years after the film's release are those quotidian moments in which James, Gilbert and Marx so richly evoke the everyday realities of lower-class African-American life: a neighborhood playground that has become a haven for drug pushers and addicts; a family living by the light of a single lamp after the electricity has been disconnected; and, in a moment at once joyful and devastating, the baking of a cake to celebrate an 18th birthday in a place where far too many kids don't live to see 18.

Hoop Dreams was a landmark documentary in several respects: One of the first feature-length films shot entirely on video, it helped to usher in the DV revolution, while its $8 million theatrical gross (the highest for any non-music documentary at that time) suggested untapped big-screen potential for nonfiction films.

Then, in what can only be called a sinful omission, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to include Hoop Dreams among the five nominees for that year's documentary Oscar, sparking widespread accusations of clubbiness and outright fraud on behalf of the Academy's documentary-nominating committee and instigating reforms in the process that would ultimately lead to the creation of a special documentary branch and long-overdue nominations for the likes of Errol Morris and Michael Moore.

Hoop Dreams did, however, manage to score an Oscar nomination for film editing--only the second time a nonfiction feature has been thusly recognized, and a reminder that few films of any sort have ever carried three hours of screen time with such breathtaking efficiency. When it is over, you crave more, as one does when savoring the last morsels of a particularly satisfying meal, or upon reading the last sentences of some great and expansive novel. The word "epic" is applied to movies so offhandedly nowadays that it has nearly lost its meaning, but Hoop Dreams is one of the few that merits the term an epic not just about the popular religion of sports, but about the vicissitudes of race and class, and the steep price of admission to the American Dream.

Scott Foundas is film editor and chief film critic for L.A. Weekly, and a member of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival.