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“Documentaries Were Medicine”: An Oral History of ‘Hoop Dreams’

"Documentaries Were Medicine": An Oral History of 'Hoop Dreams'

The biggest piece in the Dissolve’s short history is now up at the site, and it’s an appropriately landmark history of a landmark film: Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, which will be honored with a 20th anniversary screening at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday.

Writer Jason Guerrasio talked with James, then a fledgling director with an eye on a future in fiction film, and Arthur Agee, one of the film’s main subjects (the other, William Gates, has declined follow-up interviews for years, as the film chronicles a painful period in his life he’d prefer not to revisit), as well as figures like Ira Deutchman, then of Fine Line Features, who controversially opted to push the film for a Best Picture rather than a Best Documentary nomination, feeling the latter would alienate its potential audience. (It eventually got neither, though it was nominated for Best Editing, and the uproar over its omission from the documentary category started the move towards the reforms that have transformed the nomination process in recent years.) 

It’s a long, and thorough, enough piece that Guerrasio can spend a few thousand (fascinating) words on the editing process, which was especially arduous since, without quite knowing it, James and his collaborators were pushing towards a new template for documentary film. At the time, James recalls, the filmmakers ran into resistance from funding sources and distribution outlets who felt the story of two young black men trying to jump-shot their way out of inner-city Chicago poverty wasn’t “serious enough”:

[D]ocumentaries at that time were being made about serious, sobering issues. They were medicine. I remember distinctly having this conversation with a higher-up at Corporation For Public Broadcasting when we applied to them. He’s an executive who is African-American. He said, “It’s very interesting, but I don’t feel the stakes in this.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “If one of these guys became a drug addict or was killed, well, then you got something. Now that’s a story.” And I was like, “We’re hoping neither of those things happen to these guys.”

At the same time, James recalls, test audiences lured in by a trailer paired with Above the Rim walked out midway through complaining, “I didn’t know this was going to be some PBS shit.” 

At the same time as it’s a chronicle of the parties involved, and the years-long struggle it takes to make any longitudinal documentary, it’s also a window into the very different film industry of the early 1990s, when “independent film” was just becoming a marketable buzzword. (Also receiving a 20th anniversary at Sundance this year: Clerks.) At Sundance in 1994, James’ collaborator Frederic Marx recalls, “it felt like being the Beatles for a week.” As with the Fab Four, some of the changes Hoop Dreams instigated have so thoroughly taken hold it’s hard to imagine, or even remember, a time before them. But Guerrasio’s monumental (in every sense) piece establishes how much they had to change.

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