I finally got around to finishing Hoop Dreams last weekend, something I’ve been meaning to do for an age for the following reasons:
1) It’s one of the favourite films of my favourite film critic, Roger Ebert
2) I love documentaries.
3) I really like basketball, weirdly. I think playing NBA Jam incessantly as a ten-year old might have something to do with it, though.
4) I love basketball documentaries – of the episodes of ESPN 30 for 30 I’ve seen (excellent ongoing sports documentary series), the ones I enjoyed the most were Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks (very entertaining breakdown of a vicious town rivalry with classic footage of Spike Lee being made to look like a complete tool) and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (also directed by Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams). I also has a well-worn copy of a Michael Jordan documentary that I was obsessed with and watched almost every week for a period in time that really wasn't that long ago.
I’ve had a number of attempts at watching it that were all eventually aborted for a variety of reasons – I finally got the time to sit down and watch it in all its nigh on three hour glory, albeit on a terrible quality region-free DVD, the only one available to us saps in the UK (the US has a fancy Criterion Collection DVD that looks enviably feature packed). Watch Siskel and Ebert outline the story here if you're not familiar with it:
Needless to say it was just as good as I’d hoped it would be – director Steve James is an incredible visual storyteller, cherry-picking moments that are alternately tragic and triumphant, horrifying and edifying, and weaving them together into an irresistible narrative that plays more like the plot to the apocryphal Great American Novel than your common or garden inner city documentary. If it wasn't terribly reductive and obvious I'd say this was The Wire of documentaries - a richly compelling cross-section of American life infused with a sweeping, Dickensian ambition and a social conscience that has rarely been equalled in their respective mediums.
Hoop Dreams was a long time ago now (1994): in the nigh-on twenty year interim, Steve James has produced one full length feature (Prefontaine), a couple of TV movies, the aforementioned Allen Iverson documentary, and a selection of praised but little-seen documentaries. Coming up this year, however, he makes his long-awaited comeback to documenting inner-city life with The Interrupters.
The lengthy trailer lays out the premise of the film better than I ever could, so please go and watch it below immediately. It's seriously powerful stuff, and is obviously only a tiny glimpse at what James plans to show us in the full three hour feature. Advance word from festival screenings has been sensational - a brief Twitter exchange with production company Kartemquin has revealed that not only will The Interrupters be coming to a UK fest this year, but that it'll also be screened on the BBC (almost certainly BBC Four, I'd wager) as a Storyville special. If The Interrupters turns out to have anything like the scope, ambition, wit and vitality of Hoop Dreams, then we're already looking at one of the films of the decade.