Dreams of conquest: bell hooks on Hoop Dreams

In our April 1995 issue, bell hooks asked: why has the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams had so much praise lavished on it, and what does it say about America?

17 December 2021

By bell hooks

Hoop Dreams (1994)
Sight and Sound

Entering a movie theatre packed tight with the bodies of white folks waiting to see Hoop Dreams, the documentary about two African-American teenagers striving to become professional basketball players, I wanted to leave when it seemed that we (the two black folks I had come with – one of my five sisters and my ex-boyfriend) would not be able to sit together. Somehow I felt that I could not watch this film in a sea of whiteness without there being some body of blackness to anchor me, to see with me, to be a witness to the way black life was portrayed.

Now I have no problems with white filmmakers making films that focus on black life: the issue is only one of victim perspective. When you’re living in white-supremacist culture the politics of location matters, no matter who is making a film about people of colour. In the United States, when white folks want to see and enjoy images of black folks on the screen, it is often in no way related to a desire to know real black people.

Sitting together in the packed crowd, every seat in the house taken, we joked about the atmosphere in the theatre. It was charged with a sense of excitement and tension, the anticipation normally present at sports events. The focus on basketball playing may have allowed the audience to loosen up some, but without knowing much about the content and direction of the film, and whether it was serious or not, folks were clearly there to have fun.

As it began, a voyeuristic pleasure at being able to observe from a distance the lives of two black boys from working-class and poor inner-city backgrounds overcame the crowd. The lurid fascination involved in the “watching” of this documentary was itself profound documentation of the extent to which blackness has become commodified in this society – the degree to which black life, particularly the lives of poor and working-class black people, can become cheap entertainment even when the film-makers don’t intend anything like this.

Film-makers Peter Gilbert, Fred Marx and Steve James make it clear in interviews that they want audiences to see the exploitative aspects of the sports systems in America even as they also wish to show the positives. Gilbert declares: “We would like to see these families going through some very rough times, overcoming a lot of obstacles, and rising above some of the typical media stereotypes that people have about inner-city families.” Note the way in which Gilbert does not identify the race of these families. Yet it is precisely the fact of blackness that gives this documentary popular cultural appeal. The lure of Hoop Dreams is that it affirms that those on the bottom can ascend this society, even as it is critical of the manner in which they rise. This film tells the world how the American dream works. As the exploitative white coach at St Joseph’s high school puts it while he verbally whips these black boys into shape: “This is America. You can make something of your life.”

In the United States, reviewers, an overwhelming majority of whom are white, praised Hoop Dreams, making it the first documentary to be deemed worthy of an Academy award for best picture, by critics and moviegoers alike. Contrary to the rave reviews it has received, though, there is nothing spectacular or technically outstanding about the film. It is not an inventive piece of work. Indeed, it must take its place within the continuum of traditional anthropological and/or ethnographic documentary works that show us the ‘dark other’ from the standpoint of whiteness. Inner-city, poor, black communities, seen as ‘jungles’ by many Americans, become in this film a zone white filmmakers have crossed boundaries to enter, to document (over a period of five years) their subjects. To many progressive viewers, myself included, this film is moving because it acknowledges the positive aspects of black life that make survival possible. Even as I encouraged everyone, including myself, to see the film, I also encouraged us to look at it critically.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Contextualising Hoop Dreams and evaluating it from a cinematic standpoint are crucial to any understanding of its phenomenal success. The fact is, though it’s not a great documentary, it is a compelling and moving real-life drama. Indeed, its appeal is a testimony to this culture’s obsession with real-life stories. In many ways the style of the film has much in common with the short documentary stories reported on the Five O’Clock News or in such sensationalist tabloid programmes as Hard Copy.

By comparison with many films examining the experience of black Americans which have overtly political content and speak directly about issues of racism (such as documentaries on Malcolm X, or the Civil Rights series Eyes on the Prize), the focus of this film was seen by reviewers as more welcoming. It highlights an issue Americans of all races, but particularly white Americans, can easily identify with: the longing of young black males to become great basketball players, and to play for the National Basketball Association.

No doubt it is this standpoint that leads a review like David Denby’s in New York magazine to proclaim it “an extraordinarily detailed and emotionally satisfying piece of work about American inner-city life, American hopes, American defeat.” Such a comment seems highly ironic given the reality: that it is precisely the institutionalised racism and white-supremacist attitudes in everyday American life that actively prohibit black male participation in more diverse cultural arenas and spheres of employment, while presenting sports as the one location where recognition, success and material reward can be attained.

The desperate feeling of not making it in American culture is what drives the two young black males, Arthur Agee and William Gates, to dream of making a career as professional ballplayers. They, their family and friends never imagine that they can be successful in any other way. Black and poor, they have no belief that they can attain wealth and power on any playing field other than sports. Yet this spirit of defeat and hopelessness, that informs their options in life and their choices, is not stressed. Their longing to succeed as ballplayers is presented as though it is no more than a positive American dream. The film suggests that it is only the possibility of being exploited by adults hoping to benefit from their success (coaches, parents, siblings, lovers) that makes their dream a potential nightmare.

The film’s most powerful moments are those that subversively document the way in which these young, strong, black male bodies are callously objectified and dehumanised by the white-male dominated world of sports administration in America. Hoop Dreams shows audiences how coaches and scouts, searching to find the best ball players for their high-school and college teams, adopt an ‘auction block’ mentality that has to call to the mind of any aware viewer the history of slavery and the plantation economy, which was also built on the exploitation of young, strong, black male bodies. Just as the bodies of African-American slaves were expendable, the bodies of black male ballplayers cease to matter if they cannot deliver the desired product. In the film, the film-makers expose the ruthless agendas of grown-ups, particularly those paternalistic, patriarchal white and black males, who are so over-invested, emotionally or otherwise, in the two teenagers.

While the trials and tribulations Agee and Gates encounter on the playing field give Hoop Dreams momentum, it is their engagement with family and friends, as well as their longing to be great ballplayers, that provide the emotional pathos. In particular, Hoop Dreams offers a different – in fact unique – portrayal of black mothers. Contrary to the popular myth of matriarchal ‘hard’ black women controlling their sons and emasculating them, the two mothers in this film offer their children all necessary support and care. Agee’s mother Sheila is clearly exemplary in her efforts to be a loving parent, providing vital discipline, encouragement and affection. Less charismatic (indeed she often appears to be trapped in a passive and depressive stoicism), Gates’ mother is kept in the background, the single mother raising her children. The film does not throw light on how she provides economically.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Both Sheila and Arthur, Agee’s father, are articulate, outspoken, intelligent black folks. While the representation of their intelligence counters some stereotypes, the fact that they are not able to work together to keep the family healthy and free of major dysfunction reinforces others. The portrait of Sheila is positive, but she is represented as always more concerned with keeping the family together than Arthur. This is a traditional and often stereotypical mass-media representation of black women which conveys the underlying assumption, both racist and sexist, that they are somehow ‘better’ than black men, more responsible, less lazy. Unfortunately, the news-story reportorial style of the film precludes any detailed investigation of Agee’s father’s drug addiction or the breakdown in their relationship. In keeping with stereotypical mass-media portraits of poor black families, Hoop Dreams merely shows the failure of black male parents to sustain meaningful ties with their children. It does not critically interrogate the complex circumstances and conditions of that failure.

Even though one of the saddest moments occurs as we witness Agee’s loss of faith in his father, and his mounting hostility and rage, he is never interrogated by the film-makers about the significance of this loss, as he is about his attitudes towards basketball, education and so on. And there is even less exploration of Gates’ problematic relationship to his son. Without any critical examination, these images of black father-and-son dynamics simply confirm negative stereotypes, then compound them by suggesting that even when black fathers are present in their children’s lives they are such losers that they have no positive impact.

In this way, a cinematic portrait is created that in no way illuminates the emotional complexity of black male life. Indeed, via a process of oversimplification the film makes it appear that a longing to play ball is the all-consuming desire in the lives of these young black males. That other longings they may have go unacknowledged and unfulfilled is not addressed. Hence the standpoint of the film-makers is no way to see how these states of deprivation and dissatisfaction might intensify the obsession with succeeding in sports. Audiences are surprised when we see Gates with a pregnant girlfriend, since until this scene the narrative has suggested basketball consumes all his energies.

This suggestion was obviously a strategic decision on the part of the film-makers. For much of the dramatic momentum of Hoop Dreams is rooted in its evocation of competition, through the documentary footage of basketball games where audiences are able to cheer on the stars of the film, empathically identifying with their success or failure, or via the rivalry the film constructs between Agee and Gates. Even though we see glimpses of camaraderie between the two black males, the film, constantly comparing and contrasting their fate, creates a symbolic competition.

On one hand, there’s the logic of racial assimilation, which suggests that those black folks will be most successful who assume the values and attitudes of privileged whites; opposing this, there’s the logic of narrow nationalism, which suggests that staying within one’s own group is better because that is the only place where you can be safe, where you can survive. This latter vision, of narrow nationalism, is the one that ‘wins’ in the film. And it is perfectly in synch with the xenophobic nationalism that is gaining momentum among all groups in American culture.

Ultimately, Hoop Dreams offers a conservative vision of the conditions for ‘making it’ in the United States. It clearly argues that the context in which one ‘makes it’ is within a nuclear family that prays together, works hard and completely and uncritically believes in the American dream. An almost religious belief in the power of competition to bring success permeates American life. The ethic of competition is so passionately upheld and valued in Agee’s family that it intensifies the schism between him and his dad. William Gates learns to critique the ethic of competition that he has been socialised to accept passively within white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, but is portrayed as a victim. His longing to be a good parent, to not be obsessed with basketball, is not represented as a positive shift in his thinking. After his health deteriorates he is most often represented as hopeless and defeated. The triumphant individual in the film is (the young) Arthur Agee, who remains obsessed with the game. He continues to believe that he can win, that he can make it to the top.

In her book Memoir of a Race Traitor feminist writer Mab Segrest suggests that the ethic of competition undergirds the structure of racism and sexism in the United States, that to be ‘American’ is to be seduced by the lure of domination, by conquest, by winning: “As a child of Europeans, a woman whose families have spent many generations on these shores, some of them in relative material privilege, my culture raised me to compete for grades, for jobs, for money, for self-esteem. As my lungs breathed in competition, they breathed out the stale air of individualism, delivering the toxic message: You are on your own.”

To be always in constant competition, hounded by the fear of failure, is the nature of the game in a culture of domination. A terrible loneliness shrouds Agee throughout Hoop Dreams. There is no escape. He has to keep playing the game. To escape is to fail. The subversive content in this film, its tragic messages, so akin to those conveyed in other hot movies on the American scene (Interview with the Vampire, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers), are subsumed by the spectacle of playing the game – by the thrill of victory. Despite the costs, the American dream of conquest prevails and nothing changes.