It’s hard to watch these kids keep losing. It’s hard to spend three hours watching these hopeful, nervous, talented kids keep trying and failing, hitting brick wall after brick wall. It’s hard to watch them toss and turn in the wind of adults’ expectations and desires. It’s hard to watch them subjected to obvious racism from people who are supposed to be on their side. It turns your stomach. And at three hours, there’s no respite. Hoop Dreams is a film whose pain must be endured, and whose small moments of triumph must be salvaged from the wreckage.
I’m far from an NBA expert, but I knew enough going into Hoop Dreams to know that neither of these kids achieved much at the professional level. Neither of them played there at all, in fact. No one could have known this at the time of the film’s release, but it gives the whole thing an extra air of tragedy today. All that these two children went through didn’t get them where they wanted to go. Their dreams stayed dreams.
In fact, the thing that changed their lives more than any of the hard work and anguish of their education was just the fact of their appearance in the film. They were both paid $200,000 in royalties, which helped them build more secure lives for themselves and their families. It forces us to ask the question that any documentary of this nature inspires, and a question I’m sure they’ve asked themselves: Why them? They were plucked at random from among thousands of kids in the same circumstances. They essentially won the lottery. Fifteen years after the film’s release, it was revealed that when the electricity was shut off in Arthur’s house, the filmmakers paid for it to be turned back on. Most documentarians can be precious about not interfering with the lives of their subjects. Steve James and his team took a much more humane approach. They cared more about the kids than their film. Still, we have to ask, would it have done more good to give money to a charity that helped their entire community? Would their effort have been better spent on broader causes?
The answer, I think, is to stop looking at Hoop Dreams as the story of two individual children. This is the story of all the hundreds of kids with the same stories, and the tens of thousands of kids who never even got the chances that William and Arthur did. Hoop Dreams forces us to think about them as we watch the two children who were chosen. We have to consider that they are not outliers, that their families’ suffering is not unusual, that their educational trials and tribulations are the norm for poor black families in America. William and Arthur become, perhaps unfortunately, representatives of their class and race.
But the film never plays them as merely that. It doesn’t lose sight of what makes them unique as individuals, of their personalities and character. Part of that humane documentary filmmaking style I mentioned is the depiction of the two as not just stand-ins for a broader point about social issues, but as actual people. James is a canny enough filmmaker to know when he’s getting too polemical. So Hoop Dreams never feels obnoxious in its explication of the racism and classism to which the kids are subjected. From a white filmmaker especially, this is quite the accomplishment. James never seems to be studying William and Arthur like zoo creatures, nor does he venerate them as martyrs. His documentation is simple, honest, unadorned. That is why Hoop Dreams endures so far past the point when those dreams seemed achievable. These issues still matter, and Williams and Arthurs still exist by the thousands. Hoop Dreams isn’t looking to solve the myriad problems afflicting them. It wants you to see how those problems affect real people, not statistics or research anecdotes. It makes social issues into human ones.