I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Hoop Dreams, and What Laughter Means for Liberalism

by Robert Ham
May 23, 2012

Experiences going to the movies are rarely as memorable as the movies themselves. The surrounding environment has become just as staid and interchangeable as a coffee shop or a department store. It's a shame, too, that the most memorable movie-going experiences you're likely to have usually center on something scary or unusual or purely negative happening. For myself, I think about the near fight two patrons got into following a sparsely attended screening of Apocalypse Now Redux or the two ladies that sat behind me and my date and made catty remarks at Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during the first 20 minutes of Eyes Wide Shut.

But one that always comes to my mind when I hear the name of the movie it involved is when I had the pleasure of seeing Hoop Dreams in a theater in Seaside, Oregon. It was an early weekday screening, meaning the theater had few people in it. Sitting directly behind me was a woman who had brought her two young sons and what sounded like a European exchange student out to follow the short-lived basketball careers of Arthur Agee and William Gates. It would have been entirely unmemorable - sitting in the theater, that is - if not for the absolutely condescending clucks and titters coming from the middle-aged woman sitting behind me whenever it appeared to her that the young men on screen and their families were falling into what, I'm guessing, she considered utterly stereotypical behavior. Something as sanguine as deciding to study communication in college warranted a small chuckle, and something as huge as the electricity getting shut off in the Agees' house because they couldn't afford the bill was met with a derogatory snuff. I don't recall her making any noise during the moment William's father leaves the basketball court to go score some drugs.

Some 18 years later, that afternoon and her attitude still sting. Not only because it seemed to me to be one of the most blatant expressions of deep-seated racism that I had heard in years -- since that one terrible night when my Alabama-born uncle tossed the n-word at the TV when we watched a Mike Tyson fight -- but also because it forced me to examine my preconceived notions of my supposed white liberalism.

Sitting in a darkened theater for 2 1/2 hours and drinking deeply from this rich American epic that Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert stirred together put me at a remove from the situation playing out in front of me. It was easy for me to say I was empathizing with the plight of these two young men on the screen. I could shake my head at their relatively impoverished conditions, worry at the prospects for William after getting injured, and share in the joy of seeing Arthur's mother graduate from a nursing program.

Most of all, I could pat myself on the back for having paid money for a ticket and participated in an imaginary exchange between myself, the filmmakers, and the two young NBA hopefuls. Together, we had moved us one small step closer towards solving the problems of racism, poverty, and a society that places your success on a basketball court above all other achievements in your life.

What bullshit.

I don't put the blame on anyone but myself for this line of thinking. The filmmakers should share no part of my liberal stupidity. After seeing James's other two documentaries, Stevie and The Interrupters, I see now what an amazing humanist he is as a director. He empathizes with his subjects and uses his camera to actively affect change in some small -- or large -- way. Whether that makes a difference or not in the long run is a subject for a much larger debate. But he's trying. And he's using his skills as a storyteller as his key tool.

But what does that mean for us, the filmgoers? The whole point of social documentaries is, as I see it, a way to bring these small or large subjects to a small or large audience, to get us talking and debating and thinking about what we just saw. And if they've really done their job, the filmmaker will have us looking at the film as a mirror, seeing our own lives reflected in some small or large way on the screen.

I can't say that I had that moment of reflection. My silly hopes of becoming a writer while living in my relatively comfortable middle class world on the Oregon coast didn't connect neatly with Arthur and William. I did walk out of the theater feeling enriched and moved by what I saw, and cursing the world for putting our values so out of whack that these young Chicago-area men saw their only hope of lifting themselves out of their surroundings was through the glare of the NBA spotlight.

That was it, though. I tucked it into my back pocket and thought myself the better for having seen it. And thought myself much better than that awful woman who grumbled and tittered away through the whole thing.

In reality, I'm no better or worse than her, than Arthur and William, or Steve James or anyone around. That's a notion we all like to think we understand and know inherently. Alas, that really isn't the case, is it? It keeps us laughing and striving and tweeting and grumbling to think that we are either better or worse than someone else on the planet.

I do it. You do it. The lady in the theater did it. And I feel like I was doing it just then too. As much as I try to deny that fact, it's the truth. I look back some two decades later and am assured that I was better off than Arthur Agee and William Gates, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

Call it guilt if you want, but it's the true reason I keep coming back to this movie again and again, year after year. I watch it frequently - at least once a year - in hopes of reaching the same space where James, and especially Agee and Gates, reside. That much-vaunted level playing field that we all imagine we are already on. Someday, I might just make it. And I can only hope that woman from the theater will have already reached that point before me.

Robert Ham is a writer based in Portland, OR where he's a regular contributor to Willamette Week and The Oregonian. You can also read his work in Alternative Press and self-titled magazine. He likes black-capped chickadees and Chinese noodles.