In the first few minutes of the three-hour documentary Hoop Dreams, you see something that no longer exists: Robert Taylor Homes. These modernist towers were built in the '60s and managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. They represented the ideals of the Swiss French architect Le Corbusier and also the end of the road for America's commitment to public housing. Hoop Dreams captures the years before the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing. What we see in the documentary is the end of the black, Starbucks-less inner city. And so it is impossible to watch this story of kids who have dreams of becoming rich and famous by way of professional basketball without a sense of nostalgia and even sadness. The junkyards, crappy convenience stores, storefront churches, neglected parks, and playgrounds all sit on property that will soon begin to rise in value. America's concept of urbanism will radically change. The suburbs will lose their charm, and inner-city density will be revalued as a virtue—along with walkability and public transportation. Indeed, the very first shot in Hoop Dreams is of an elevated train, slicing through the hood.
Arguably the best documentary of the '90s and certainly one of the greatest American independent films of all time, Hoop Dreams was shot over five years on video and concerns two black males, William Gates and Arthur Agee. At the start of the film, both are 14 and live in different parts of Chicago. The documentary moves between their lives on basketball courts and in classrooms and apartments, which are small and crammed with children. Both William and Arthur are discovered by an informal talent scout and end up being recruited by a posh high school, St. Joseph High School, in the suburbs. The basketball legend Isiah Thomas attended this school. His coach is their coach. To be a part of this school's basketball program is to place yourself on a track to the pros and the dough. The trip from the ghetto to the school is 90 minutes.
William is raised by his mother and is close to his older brother, Curtis, who has transferred his own dreams for basketball glory onto William. Curtis goes in and out of jobs, gains weight, and watches his brother's rise from the hood to elite basketball circles with great intensity and anxiety. The pressure he puts on his brother is too much. You can easily imagine the terrific meltdown he would have if William fails to enter the NBA. As the film progresses, we more and more understand that William's chances of reaching the pros are pretty slim, and not from a lack of trying but from bad biological luck—his ankles and knees are prone to injury. For much of the middle of the film, William is under a surgeon's knife and receiving physical therapy and breaking his brother's heart. (A quick note: Seven years after the documentary completed, and a few years after William's dreams were dashed by a long list of injuries, Curtis was gunned down by a man who happened to be the boyfriend of his girlfriend.)
Arthur, on the other hand, is raised by a mother and a father, Arthur "Bo" Agee Sr. His mother, Sheila, is pragmatic and provides the documentary's most penetrating critique of American society and the roots of poverty. Arthur Jr.'s basketball hopes are challenged not by an accident of biology but of character (he is just not as likable as William) and his rocky relationship with his father, who eventually abandons the family, goes in and out of prison, and becomes a drug addict. The scene of his father openly buying crack on the edge of an open-air basketball court is one of the most famous and brutal moments of '90s cinema. (A quick note: In 2004, Arthur Sr. was shot to death in an apparent robbery not far from the house his son bought with the small fortune he made from the film.)
Twenty years on, Hoop Dreams remains a powerful work. Part of that power comes from the fact that what once felt like a trenchant contemporary saga is now a ghost story, set in a world that has almost completely vanished. But most of the film's power—and the reason it broke through so dramatically—issues from its masterful narrative construction.
After a few minutes of watching the documentary, you begin to forget that you are watching a documentary. ("This is like a movie," my friend said to me when we watched it a few nights ago.) Its mood, pace, score, sequences, editing, characters, and tensions have the feel of a great drama in the class of The Godfather or Taxi Driver. This dramatic power helped usher in the age of the documentary (and probably the age of reality television, though you can't really blame the film for that). The intimate moments in Hoop Dreams are not forced or staged but artfully timed and articulated, as if framed by an auteur. Indeed, it may not be possible to make a documentary like this again. Who in our moment has the will, the courage, the madness to shoot 250 hours of footage? To wake up, make the calls, visit the homes in poor neighborhoods, shoot the scenes, and edit all of it into a coherent and compelling narrative? Making a movie like Hoop Dreams now seems as unlikely as a young black male making it in the NBA.