A film following the lives of two African American boys who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.
In American Cinema, baseball is always associated with nostalgia and fondly-imagined virtues of family and country, but the current rash of basketball films (Blue Chips, White Men Can’t Jump etc.) are about a divided, desperate American present. Easily outclassing the fiction films is this extraordinarily compelling near three-hour documentary, which follows a pair of black kids from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project through four years of high school, examining the assumption that their basketball talent is a chance to get out of the ghetto and into college, and which is being heavily talked up as a possible Oscar contender outside(ital) the documentary category.
Both Gates and Agee are spotted as 14-year-olds by a recruiting man who arranges basketball scholarships for them at an up-scale school. Both struggle, Gates with injuries and Agee with low academic achievement, but continue to shine on the court. With exceptional skill at distinguishing drama from the raw footage of fly-on-the-wall shooting, James hits on a real irony: Agee’s presence peps up his no hope team into a winning streak while Gates is troubled by doubts and a “good but not great” career.
Though there is plenty of hoop action, the film focuses on the various pressures on the heroes (and heroes they become) from families, schools, coaches, friends, sponsors, college recruiters and hanger’s-on. Confident enough to leave plenty to implication — both kids are fathers by the time they leave high school and Agee has a friend who seems to be leading him into a life of crime — this is the best type of documentary, giving an intensely personal story you can’t help but become involved in, and also raises fundamental issues about America in the 90s.
A truly great documentary
Reviewed by Kim Newman