With At the Movies ending this week after a storied history that has seen numerous title changes, lineup shifts and not one but two tragedies, the benedictions are already underway. Rankings of favorite moments and the best arguments (if there is much of a difference between the two for many) have cropped up here and there, and I cannot wait to read some of the touching posts eulogizing the program and what it meant for many. To be sure, most of the blogs that will say something about the show were first inspired to write about film from watching Siskel and Ebert go at every Sunday.
But I would like to send-off the show in the way I feel most appropriate, by looking at one of the films I came across solely through the attention it received on the program. Everyone loved to watch Ebert and Siskel, or Roeper, or Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott spar over a disagreement, but the classic team were never better than in agreement. When Gene and Roger both hated a film, they goaded each other into funnier and funnier takedowns. When they loved it, they would peel back an impressive number of layers in a three- or four-minute exchange. And when they really loved a movie, they turned At the Movies into a platform for extolling the virtues of the object of their affection. In some cases, this spotlight could be the deciding factor in getting a festival film distribution, or drumming up commercial success.
There is no better example of Siskel and Ebert's desire to use At the Movies to highlight films than Hoop Dreams, a planned, 30-minute mini-doc that evolved into a 3-hour rumination on youth in America's urban centers and the state of the American Dream. Steve James and his crew track William Gates and Arthur Agee, two Chicago teenagers with dreams of making the NBA, through high school as recruiters send them to private schools and grades and performances fluctuate on a weekly basis.
With the first shots, James communicates the style of the documentary, objectively moving over poor districts in Chicago and taking in the sights without comment. Yet when he touches upon footage of basketball, either of kids playing in neighborhood courts or of professional games being watched on TV, the film slows down, lingers on these shots. For so many of these poor, black kids, the NBA may be the only way out of the ghetto, and basketball represents not only fame and wealth but simply happiness. Young Arthur vocalizes this in his first scene, telling the documentary crew that "when" he makes it, the first thing he'll do is give back to his family. He's not thinking about the models or the diamonds yet, just getting his family out of the projects and into a nice house. That shared desire among nearly all inner-city youth leads to competition, to the point that basketball recruiters now scout for kids in middle school to send them to high schools with good programs. James follows around one Earl Smith early in the film as the man talks of helping kids along "the road to success," but he's part of a twisted system that finds and bleeds these kids early -- much later in the film, a host of college recruiters use terms like "meat market" and speak to each other knowingly about hooking 'em while they're young.
Yet Earl is indeed someone who can set them on the path to realizing their dreams, and he takes his interest in both Agee and Gates to St. Joseph High School, a private school out in Westchester. St. Joe's is Mecca for Chicago urban youth, the place where a young Isiah Thomas was sent to perfect his game, leading to his professional career and freeing him from the same ghettos these kids live in today. The school even brings in Thomas to talk to all the kids culled across the state, and when he plays a fun one-on-one with Arthur, the 14-year-old looks like he might pass out from joy. The school's legendary basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, promises the two young men partial scholarships, practically drawing up contracts just to attend a high school, and William and Arthur prepare to train for the big time at the ripe age of 14.
During their freshman year, William and Arthur find themselves in their element on the basketball court but lost at sea when they have to leave playing with all the other recruited black teens and go to classes with wealthy white children. The students of St. Joe's are ahead of the curve with their private educations, but William and Arthur come from underfunded, understaffed inner city public schools, are hopelessly behind. William reads at a fourth-grade level but his dedication powers him through his setbacks and by the end of the year, he's up to par. Arthur, however, is not so lucky and, combined with his inferior performance on the court, he begins to tailspin.
At this point, you understand exactly why James stuck around for more than a few months: Hoop Dreams takes on a drama that could shame most fictive films, and certainly the overdone, clichéd realm of the sports movie. In this movie, every failed test, every missed free throw carries weight. A professional player can blow a game and come back later, but a teenager trying to impress the people who will set him on the path to that fame faces more brutal competition than contracted NBA ballers. If their grades slip too much, not even the interference of coaches can help out. And if their game suffers even for one match, someone else might move up the ladder over them. With William seemingly destined for greatness and Arthur burning out his freshman year, James has a modern version of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two identical individuals, one of whom is well-adjusted and happy and the other miserable as life continues to wear him down. Once those roles begin to reverse and reverse again, however, Hoop Dreams morphs into a complicated tragedy.
In the process, James captures the richest portrait of modern American life until David Simon eventually brought The Wire to the small screen. There are no villains in the film, not even St. Joe's, but the perversity of America's values is nakedly on display. As Arthur's new coach at John Marshall High School says, someone at St. Joe's would have ignored his poor grades and his poverty if he'd played like they thought he would (just look at the help that materializes around William when he runs into money problems and his grades slip). Everyone representing a school always tells the prospects and the cameras that they value education over sport, but coaches never seem to care about the players' grades beyond the minimum requirement to qualify for scholarships. This warped perception of value, in which the kids see basketball as the only way out of the ghetto because people like Pingatore, Earl Smith and everyone else in the sports system has turned it into a business that processes people from adolescence through adulthood, is stunning in its vacuity. As William's hobbling knee injuries that plague him through his junior year demonstrate, a basketball career can end at any moment.
So, when Arthur admits that he never put much stock in academics, one does not wonder why he does not care but instead questions how something as vital as an education became so unimportant to people while entertainment rose to such a position of prominence. St. Joe's works almost like a factory, well-educated white coaches always in charge of impoverished, barely literate black youths. There isn't any racism in Hoop Dreams, but race is a key component of this system: the white children at St. Joe's benefit from the recruiting program in that they grow up exposed to people of polar opposites -- a touching scene near the end of the film shows Arthur returning to the school for a visit, where he is greeted ecstatically by some friends he made there who want to hear all about how he's been -- but there's something subtly disturbing about the idea of upper-class white parents allotting their tuition money to gathering up black children for their entertainment. The poor in America's slums are by no means exclusively black, of course, but school districts are not-so-subtly carved along the same racial lines that Congressional districts are gerrymandered. Arthur feels uncomfortable around the white people at St. Joe's because he's never interacted with many whites and does not know how to relate to them, and when he leaves for public school, he ends up at a place with a 99% black student body. At times, it feels as if segregation never really ended in some inner-city schools.
Then again, you can't even call basketball entertaining once you've seen how it affects these kids. The titular dreams give way to cold disillusionment as the only thing in the boys' lives that demonstrably changes is their perception of the game. With the practice of recruitment and playing now shifted down the age line to focus on high school, even sports commentators get in on the action as if discussing NBA players. When they call William and, later, Arthur, the next Isiah Thomas, they put an absurd amount of pressure on kids too young to handle their current responsibilities, much less struggle to make those predictions come true. And isn't there something messed up about players with multimillion dollar contracts being able to get away with so much when a single misstep could derail these teenagers' lives?
As soon as William and Arthur court the recruiters, they find themselves besieged by hangers-on hoping to ride their coattails to the big time. Curtis, William's brother, was himself a star back in the day, but his arrogance held him back despite his considerable talent. Now, he tries to live out his failed dream through William, who quickly grows tired of the endless lecturing. "Seems like everybody I know is my coach." Later, his long-absent father comes calling and even offers him a used car he fixed up, but the high school senior knows better by then. Arthur, too, must face off with his father, Arthur "Bo" Sr. Bo speaks occasionally of his basketball dreams, but his initial love and support for his son gives way to absences in times of financial straits and even incarceration.
It is nearly impossible to discuss Hoop Dreams without cataloging at least some of the seemingly endless tragedies that befall the two families. Both Bo and Arthur's mom, Sheila, lose their jobs and cannot secure public aid, so the Agee family lives in a darkened apartment with no utilities for a while. When Bo returns after one of his leaves, he plays one-on-one with his son on a neighborhood court, but only when he slinks away and James matter-of-factly states that such places have now become prime locations for drug dealing do we understand why Bo really showed up out of the blue. Both Arthur and William impregnate young women, adding to the financial burden and the crippling responsibilities crushing them. And no moment of the film is more searing and heartbreaking than the scene of the Agee family returning hat in hand to St. Joseph to request Arthur's transcripts be released, which the school has withheld pending the settlement of unpaid tuition. Again, St. Joe's is not in the wrong here: the Agees owe money whether Arthur finished there or not. But to see the family practically begging when the shadow of St. Joe's and the effect its rejection had on Arthur, destroying a boy whose whole problem on the court was a lack of confidence, is devastating. At some point you start to wonder why the simple presence of the cameras didn't change something for the better, but it seems the Hawthorne effect cannot withstand the force of the Earth crashing down on it. Hell, when Spike Lee comes to talk to high school seniors with college recruiters just out of earshot, his outsized rant about the value of these kids as human beings being derived entirely from how much money they can make coaches, recruiters and team owners, his comic, aggressive persona seems the only voice of reason.
There are no easy outs in Hoop Dreams, a tragic realization given that the film concerns two kids' desires to free themselves through what they think is the easy way: just play ball, and you'll never have to eke your way out of the ghetto with brains. Quickly, they understand that the easy way out is the most difficult path of all, requiring them to get up at 5:30 every morning to catch trains and buses out to St. Joe's, study harder than any of their equally doomed peers in the city to get grades just good enough to pass and torture themselves with endless practicing. This toughens the young men, and if both have lost their dreams by the end, they at least come away with knowledge, however bitter. When Bo challenges him to another one-on-one, Arthur refuses to take his dad's joking deflections and dirty playing, venting frustrations than run deeper than a personal foul when he declares, "Ain't no con game going on anymore. I'm older now." William speaks of going to Coach Pingatore about the problems he's been having with his girlfriend's family and his own over taking responsibility for his child, and Pingatore -- consumed by his own basketball dream, one that's come true but been perverted by the system he helped construct -- tells him simply to "write 'em off." As William relates this, he sounds infinitely older and wiser when he looks at James behind the camera and asks rhetorically, "What kind of advice is that?"
Still, glimmers of hope break through the pain. An event as lauded but banal as an 18th birthday takes on a much greater significance when Sheila notes that not every child in the ghetto makes it to 18. That both boys graduate high school -- and William with a full ride to Marquette, the school Curtis couldn't qualify for years ago because of his grades -- is a victory for their parents, especially Sheila and William's mother Emma, both of whom only ever wanted their children to get an education. But the best moment of the entire film does not actually concern anything remotely connected to basketball, or even involving the boys. James brilliantly withholds the news that Sheila has entered nursing school until he springs the revelation on the audience on the day that she graduates with the highest GPA in the class. James likely showed only this one scene because he already had a three-hour film on his hands, but the omission works to his advantage, suddenly confronting the audience with something more worthy than all the basketball games in the world. As Sheila cries with irrepressible joy and screams, "And people told me I wasn't going to be anything." Whether he intends to or not, James contrasts all of the screaming, enthused crowds of basketball matches placed before and after this sequence with the sparse ceremony attended only by a handful of relatives and the other graduates. Here is the one moment in the lives of all these people that deserves wild cheers, a woman pulling herself up out of her unwitting dependence on welfare that couldn't feed her, much less her family, without being torn apart by agents and coaches.
"People say, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me,'" William tells the camera in the final moments of Hoop Dreams. "I feel like telling them, 'If I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me." This is a far cry from the Gates who thought he'd be the next icon of inner-city ball players, a man with all his boyishness burned out of him. At the end of three hours, we've changed as he has, made distrustful of the promise of fame and confused how anyone can really succeed who wasn't born into a family that had already done so. Both the Gateses and The Agees would endure further setbacks after the film: Curtis was murdered on September 10, 2001, while Bo would also be gunned down three years later. But, as in the film, life goes on, and both Arthur and William have stabilized and seem to have found contentment. Made before the explosion of reality TV, Hoop Dreams did not translate into the sort of fame for William and Arthur that we expect to see from reality "stars" today. They spun the film in their favor, mind you, but they settled for a comfortable life away from the slums rather than chase fame in the hopes of briefly living in opulence. Their humility is unsurprising, given all they've been through by the end of Hoop Dreams, and if they only ever made it out of the projects because of James' presence, is their struggle any less meaningful?