The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The three hour sports documentary that doesn’t require you to like sports

with 14 comments


First of all: full disclosure. I don’t care about sports. I’m almost completely ignorant of and equally indifferent to all sorts of competitions where people are supposed to jump, run, swim or toss balls and other objects one way or another.

Most of the sports I’ve watched in my life, I watched in class at school. You see, I grew up when the Swedish alpine skier Ingmar Stenmark was at his top. Whenever he was up for an important (or not so important) competition, all Swedes unanimously turned on their TVs and watched it, regardless of what they were doing at the moment. Everyone did it – at school, at work or in public and it didn’t matter if you cared about sports or not. Downhill skiing in the 70s was greater than life, don’t ask me why.

As an adult however I barely ever watch sports. Admittedly I enjoy watching elite gymnastics and figure skating, but I regard it more as a performing art than anything else. During the Olympics I might also check out the iconic men’s 100 m final since the raw energy burst somehow holds a spell over me and it only takes ten seconds of my time. And of course I watched every match and competition that my daughters participated in as they grew up. But with those exceptions, I don’t care for sports. I have no idea of which team won the national league in football this year and I can’t name a single Swedish basketball player. (Michael Jordan wasn’t Swedish, was he?)

Coming from this, you would imagine that a three hour long documentary about a couple of aspiring American basketball players wouldn’t be exactly my cup of tea. But strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely after all, it was.

A film about people
Hoop Dreams takes place over five years in the lives of the teenagers Arthur and William, who both come from poor circumstances, living in the inner-city of Chicago. The film starts as they’re about to begin high school and ends somewhere in the beginning of their college time. We follow them on their way through the educational system and the world of basketball. Both have been recruited to a high profile high school thanks to their talents for basketball. Both dream of becoming professional basketball players one day. And, as it turns out, both will have a rather bumpy ride as they’re trying to reach their goals.

So how is it that I, a middle-aged middle-class woman in Sweden with no knowledge or interest for American basketball, ended up liking this film? I would say that it’s because for being a film about basketball it hasn’t that much of basketball in it. If you’re looking for a film that recounts the history of basketball, that teaches you basketball tactics or how to become a better basketball player, this is not a film for you. This is a film about real people and their real lives.

Basketball to them isn’t just something you do with your friends an afternoon because it’s fun and gives you a bit of exercise. There’s a lot more at stake here; succeeding in basketball can be the one chance they’ll get in life to raise from poverty, to get an exam and a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on the boys is huge, from their family as well as from the schools that have recruited them. If they turn out not to become the excellent players that their original talent suggested or if they end up injured, they run the risk to be spitted out from the machinery, back to the place where they came from. The recruiting schools that offer scholarships and prosperity as long as they play well aren’t necessarily doing a bad thing. But there’s definitely a downside to the system.

Had this been a reality TV show, we would have seen sensational twists or people badmouthing each other secretly in front of the camera every second minute. Unbearable if you ask me. But as the serious documentary film it is, it makes no hurry to get to the dramatic and emotional highpoints. The film is plodding along during the three hours it lasts and there are long sequences of lectures at school, family gatherings and spontaneous basketball games with family and friends in the neighborhood. This is not necessarily a negative, but you should be prepared for it or you might get a little impatient.

You need to take the mental step into the world of those boys and walk along with them, rather than watching them from the sideline, waiting for the drama to unfold.

The role of the women
One final thought that occurred to me as I watched this:  the film is rather traditional when it comes to how it conveys men and women.  The men are the ones with talent who struggle to fulfill their dreams. The women don’t dream for their own part. They dream on behalf of men and are there to support them.  You have the mothers who push the boys, cheer for them, cry with them and help them along all the way. You have the girlfriend who takes care of a baby that it took two people to make. You have the cheerleaders who do what cheerleaders are supposed to do: dance, chant smile and cheer for the team of men to win. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault I suppose; it’s a documentary after all. But it was a little saddening to see.

Hoop Dreams was made twenty years ago, but given that it was made today, I wonder if it could have been about dreams of two promising female players? Is there such a thing as scholarships for girls with a talent for basketball? I hope so and I hope someone one day will bother to tell their story.

Women do engage in other sport activities than cheerleading and figure skating. It’s about time that movies start to reflect this fact.

Hoop Dreams (Steve James, US 1994) My rating: 4,5/5


I watched Hoop Dreams as a part of a blogathon run by the Swedish network Filmspanarna. The theme was “sports movies”. Here’s what my fellow bloggers wrote on the topic:

Fiffis filmtajm
Fripps filmrevyer
Movies Noir
Moving landscapes
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

January 29, 2014 at 6:00 am

Posted in Hoop Dreams

14 Responses

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  1. On the matter of men and women — it’s still all ’bout the money and I’m not sure that there is enough in the women’s league to make the same kind of dreams possible.

    The American system is problematic, on the one hand it manages to create great athlets but on the other hand they pay a pretty big price as you say.


    January 29, 2014 at 10:47 am

    • Yes, there’s definitely two sides to it. I can’t just brush it off as “evil” since it apparently helps people who else wouldn’t get a chance to get a higher education.


      January 29, 2014 at 3:45 pm

  2. Thanks for the tip. Mayby a bit long but if it´s done well time doesn´t matter.


    January 29, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    • It’s worth the time. And if you compare it to how much time it would take to watch a series about the same topic, it’s quick!


      January 29, 2014 at 3:44 pm

  3. I have heard about this documentary but I haven’t been so interested. But maybe one day I get around to watch it. I haven’t seen a whole lot of documentaries about sports at all. I have seen some BOATS, most about men or boys. Women? Not so much.


    January 29, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    • I really love documentaries of all sorts. Sports is apparently no exception. Another documentary about sports that I could have written about, had I not already covered it, is Bobby Fisher against the World, about chess. Love that one. I’m sure there are several others out there, just can’t think of any right now.


      January 29, 2014 at 3:44 pm

  4. So this movie is for basketball what Moneyball is for baseball? A movie about the sport but not about sport? Perhaps that´s why you like them both?


    January 29, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    • Well I suppose they’re similar in the way that it’s more about the people than about what way the ball is rolling. But apart from that they’re really pretty different. Moneyball is still a fairly traditional drama, a heroes journey. Hoop Dreams is a documentary where voiceover and such is used sparsly. It feels very natural, close to life.Whle there are some dramatic moments, it’s far from the normal curve that a feature movie has.


      January 29, 2014 at 8:13 pm

  5. I’m glad you liked this. You are absolutely correct that it’s about the people, not about the sport. Yes, they don’t show female athletes but it’s not about athletics as much as it is about trying to excel at something. It could have as easily been about two musical prodigies. The doc does focus on the women when it comes to the challenges of trying to excel at keeping their children clothed, fed, and out of trouble (such as when one of their fathers buys drugs right in front of him.) And one of the hardest hitting emotional moments for me in this film is when the mother earns her diploma and is so excited and proud of herself…and then the camera moves back and we see nothing but empty chairs. No one she knew could be bothered to attend the ceremony of her accomplishment.

    A couple of other docs I’ve seen that have sports in them, but aren’t really about sports are The Other Dream Team and Murderball. If you haven’t seen them you may want to check them out. I reviewed the first one here, if you are interested:

    Chip Lary

    January 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    • The portraying of women here isn’t bad at all, they have a lot of camera time and like you I was deeply moved when she earned her diploma. But the role they play is the one they always play: nurturers, mothers, supporters. Not your fault though. It’s society. Equality takes time.

      I just checked out your review and it sounds like something for me. Actually I’m kind of glad it’s basketball again. While I, as I stated in the post, don’t follow any basketball and can’t name a player, I have a weak spot for the sport as such since I played it a bit in my youth (though I was crap at it, being too short and lacking talent for anything related to a ball). what I like is that it’s so intense. High pace, a lot of goals. That makes for a fun game.


      January 29, 2014 at 8:20 pm

  6. For what it’s worth, Jessica, in Ebert’s “Great Movies” review of this one he mentions on how repeat viewings he came to view Arthur’s mother as the true hero of the film. How she has to go through so much through so little to support her son – and does so willingly – and then eventually that reveal to show that she graduated from nursing school (I think it was nursing school – been a few years since I’ve seen it). So you never know, if you choose to watch it again, perhaps that will open up more.

    Still though, I understand what you’re saying. There is a professional women’s basketball league now in the US, and it’s a constant place of struggling just to stay afloat, and frankly that could make for its own interesting documentary.


    January 30, 2014 at 3:58 am

    • I think Ebert definitely has a good point there. And mind you, I don’t complain about the film being discriminating against women or anything. It’s more that the world of sports still as a long way to go before we’re there. Even in Sweden, which I belive is very progressed in those matters, I read articles as late as last week about a female icehockey team that only got the worst time slots at the training hall – if any time at all. Fortunately people reacted aginst it and politicians threatened to cancel all financial support for the club, so they’ll have to rethink about that. But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I hate to so often see women just being there cheering for the guys when they should be out there, playing, making money, getting a chance to a good education the same way as the boys.


      February 2, 2014 at 11:54 pm

  7. I’ve heard about this doc but haven’t gotten around to seeing it. Murderball is another pretty interesting doc about and we shouldn’t forget the great Swedish doc Armbryterskan från Ensamheten.

    Yeah, it’s funny about documentaries. The subject can be something you’re really not into at all but you can still enjoy the film. Sometimes it’s a fascinating look into another world, sometimes it’s not really about what you think but rather about people.

    The discussion about men vs women makes me think of Zlatans comment about women soccer players in Sweden and how he could give them a bike signed by him instead of a car…


    January 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    • Yes! How could I forget about Amrmbryterskan? It would have been a perfect movie to talk about. I love it. Actually it should be possible to make a list post about sport documentaries solely I haven’t seen Murderball but I should.


      February 2, 2014 at 11:47 pm

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