Newscasters, assuming their empathic duties, have cast a proverbial blanket over the events of September 11. We hear them say, “We were all New Yorkers on 9/11.” But were we? Of course we could argue that, yes, we might imagine the pandemonium in the World Trade Center on the day that will live in infamy for children of this millenium. But we were not all New Yorkers.
Many of us were spared that agony, and went to sleep that evening fairly untraumatized. It was not until a recent documentary that chronicled the rescue and excavation efforts of the NYPD that I was able to even remotely place myself in a New Yorker’s shoes, or in a fireman’s boots. The documentary was honest and poignant, but it was also something else. It did not try to make up my mind for me. Instead, it prompted me to think about the human condition, about what any man would do given a certain set of challenges and some fireproof overalls. It caused me to think, what I would have done if I had been a New Yorker on September 11?
This should be the raison d’etre of a documentary. They can expose, introduce, transport. But at their heart – in fact, it should be the very reason their hearts beat – is a motive to help us to understand our world and our place within our world. It is not enough to inform us about places we may never visit or people we may never meet. Their sole function cannot merely to be of interest for even interesting things collect dust and grow antiquated. A documentary that can offer us context for who we are and who are not, about where we live and where we do not – that! That is the documentary that matters!
Of all the documentaries produced in the last fifteen years about poverty in America, one in particular captures it rightly. “Hoop Dreams” chronicles the high school and college basketball careers of two African-American boys from Chicago. Even its title, “Hoop Dreams” is poignant for what it signals about America, and about exit strategies from life in low-income housing developments. The producers originally sought to create a 30-minute short about the culture of street basketball in Chicago. Upon realizing a greater and longer story begged to be told, the producers followed two boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, throughout high school and into college. Six years and 250 hours of film later, the producers were confronted with the dilemma of how to contain these stories for a theatre audience.
The producers condensed the footage so that the boys and their families are still presented as multi-dimensional characters. The proud moments and pitfalls are plentiful, and the same can surely be said of life when cameras are not rolling. We are there to feel the rush when Gates emerges as a court stand-out at the Nike basketball camp. We are there to feel the sinking shame when Agee’s father seals a drug deal on the same courts in which his son practices ball. The ability of this film to capture these moments – moments that couldn’t credibly be rehearsed and re-enacted – may explain why Agee is still asked how his mother is doing by those who have seen “Hoop Dreams.”
Rogert Ebert wrote, “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” But Ebert is only partly right. “Hoop Dreams” does teach us about our world, about a sometimes marginalized part of the world often referred to as “poor” or “low-income,” but rich in hope. The Gates and the Agee families are, in fact, so rich in hope that both families place their stock in the hopes that their sons will go pro. As “Hoop Dreams” reminds us, though, roughly three in 10,000 boys playing high school basketball will be drafted by the NBA.
Still, the part that Ebert appears to miss is that Agee and Gates also teach us about ourselves. Gates and Agee, whose basketball talent is evident even in the eighth grade, take 90-minute bus rides to school in order to play for their high school teams. Despite Agee’s plight with a crack-addicted father and an apartment with no electricity, and despite Gates’ abandonment by his father and becoming a father himself at age 15, the boys still cling to the Dream. Their struggles and their abilities to overcome teach us about ourselves.
Whether we are American or foreign-born, financially privileged or destitute, athletic, creative, or smart-we are all entitled to dream. To dream is a universal human right. No purchase necessary. Gates and Agee are agents of a dream that we can understand more perfectly, that we ourselves can relate to, because of the honest, intimate portrayal of their pursuit of Hoop Dreams.
Documentaries, unlike most Hollywood films, operate with a flexible “plotline” and cast of characters. Cameras are rolling but a real life set has no time for Exit: Stage Left, for Take Two. Events overlap, spontaneously begin, and spontaneously end. Different stars emerge and certain stars fade out unexpectedly. Some documentaries can force a loose plotline with a loose cast of characters. Still, documentarians are constantly faced with the dilemma of how to reflect real life while producing a film that has realistic bounds.
The scope of “Hoop Dreams” was narrow in that it only focused on two families, but it was long in that it documented the high school and early college years of the Agee and Gates. Another documentary “Boys of Baraka,” produced in 2006, also focuses on the lives of African-American boys growing up in urban housing developments. The scope of “Baraka” is wide as it covers the experience of roughly six families, but it is narrow in that it documents only a couple of years in the boys’ lives.
“Baraka” is a colorful, bittersweet, and oftentimes amusing documentary. It follows a handful of boys in Baltimore who are given the chance to spend their junior high years at a rural school in Kenya. The intention of the Baraka School is to eliminate the daily threats of violence, drugs, and other distractions that prevail in the boys’ community, and place them in an environment that allows them to thrive personally and academically. The Baraka School is, practically speaking, an escape from Baltimore. The school is also designed to prepare the young men to enter and graduate from the top high schools once they return to Baltimore.
“Baraka” transports the boys from the East Coast to East Africa. Unfortunately, it provides only a one-dimensional map of these boys’ lives when we were hoping for a topographic one. “Baraka” tries to teach us about two contrasting parts of the world, and does so quite well. “Baraka” also tries to make another comparison, namely that the same boys from Baltimore are the same boys at the Baraka School, only they are better-behaved and better-served. Yet, “Baraka” seems to have attempted to bite off more than it could chew. This leaves us unable to fully digest its message. “Baraka” tries to cover too much territory and too many subjects, and the lessons in geography, economics, and psychology end up teaching us little about our world and ourselves.
Both “Hoop Dreams” and “Baraka” share an important perspective on growing up black and impoverished in America, and about the burden of exceptional talent or great potential. Whereas Agee and Gates are dynamic characters with their own demons and angels, the boys of “Baraka” are more monochromatic. The boys of Baraka are easily labeled as Preacher Boy, ADHD Boy, and Neo-Abolitionist Boy, to name a few.
The themes in both documentaries are broad, but they can be realized in brief moments, in seemingly microscopic nuances caught on film. “Hoop Dreams” specializes in these small moments, capturing the brief conversations or acute expressions of its subjects, but always nesting these moments within the broader contexts of family turmoil and financial pitfalls. Conversely, “Baraka” stages its scenes. The families in “Baraka” are shown more often in an interview-like setting, commenting on events that have transpired or will transpire, rather than experiencing the events firsthand while the cameras roll.
The question of “For whom are we to root?” pervades a documentary. Even nature documentaries can foster a predator/prey motif. With the exception of Michael Moore’s rolling-pin wielding films that decide the heroes/villains for us, we are usually left to determine the good guys and bad guys for ourselves. “Hoop Dreams” introduces us to many heroes. Gates and Agee are our undeniable protagonists. Interestingly, they are also caught up in a hero spectrum, invoking the names of their own heroes like Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan who were once high school boys themselves, surely holding fast to their own hoop dreams.
The mothers of Gates and Agee serve as the unsung heroes of the film, exercising an unconditional love for their families, albeit tough love at times, especially for their sons’ endeavors on the court. The hero models in “Hoop Dreams” could be found in any family. Parents who sacrifice, sons who play ball. So why are these two families significant? They matter because they show and tell how they sacrifice, how they play, how they cling to their dreams. They show us and they tell us about the intimate parts of their lives, in turn showing us and telling us how we might also follow suit given a similar set of circumstances.
The heroes of “Baraka” are similarly courageous. We root for the boys and their parents to be strong while separated by an ocean. The actual character portraits of each boy and his family are a little fuzzier than the more erudite ones of Agee and Gates, however. Since roughly seven boys are the focus in “Baraka,” the character portrayal is a bit more superficial, but the problems that each family faces are certainly pronounced. Still, the family troubles (i.e. addiction, violence, divorce) are told and rarely shown. “Baraka” offers us a few glimpses into the boys’ family lives, but the candor is compromised by scenes that have clearly been postured as interviews rather than “fly on the wall” peeks at real life.
There is one scene in “Baraka,” however, that bears all the marks of great documentary making. As the boys are headed into their second term at the Baraka School, political warfare threatens the region, and the school is closed down. The U.S.-based director of the School conveys this disappointing news to a group of parents gathered in a conference room. The mood in the air flips like a switch. Parents are outraged, bursting into tears as they pose rhetorical questions of no one in particular. How will they tell this news to their sons? Where will their sons attend school? What will happen to them now that they must stay in Baltimore? The producers’ decision to film this grievous scene must have been a difficult one.
Emotions were high and surely sentiments were uttered in the heat of the moment. Still, the scene marks a critical climax in the documentary. The boys will not return to Africa as expected but will remain in Baltimore Public Schools. This decision was told to the parents in so many words, but their unbridled emotions showed us how such a decision affected them as parents. They reacted as any parents might react when promises are broken. If only the unrehearsed aspect of this scene had continued throughout the rest of “Baraka.”
The villains of both films are also similar, even if more abstract than their definitive protagonists. The vices endemic to poverty in America – violence, drugs, unemployment – are omnipresent in the lives of the boys of “Hoop Dreams;” the basketball court is their sole escape. In “Baraka,” the same set of vices is erased when the boys land in Kenya where giraffes replace gangs loitering outside of their windows, and breathtaking landscapes replace a concrete jungle. We cheer for the boys of both films to succeed, but the prevalent distractions in “Hoop Dreams” make their particular odds seem even more insurmountable. In “Baraka,” the boys are removed from the streets that they once knew and we hope that they’ll avail themselves of this serenity.
Then, of course, their school in Kenya closes and the boys return to struggle with the lives that they had left in Baltimore. The pendulum swinging between Success and Bust moves very rapidly back and forth in both of these films. This shifting tension creates a rapport with the characters. Unlike Hollywood endings, though where all conflict wraps up neatly, we know from our own lives that Agee and Gates and the boys of Baraka will continue to wrestle with their demons.
Both “Hoop Dreams” and “Baraka” offer glimpses that are rare and pure and raw. But “Baraka” was also released twelve years after “Hoop Dreams.” “Baraka” was being made when reality programming was very much en vogue. This does not necessarily detract from the thrust of “Baraka.” However, as so many other reality television shows feature the same formula of scene-staging as “Baraka,” the access we have to the boys’ lives seems unremarkable. For example, in one scene in “Baraka,” two boys who chronically quarrel with one another are forced to separate from the group, cooperatively pitch a tent, and spend the night under the stars together. The heightened conflict in these scenes suspends our interest. Will they work it out? Will they brawl again?
The boys do pitch their tent. They also raise the bar for themselves as mature young men. This manifestation of personal change allows us to see human lives evolving if only by a small measure. But physical challenges, personal confessions, and fantastic intercontinental voyages can be viewed on primetime every night. “Baraka” appears to have taken the successful ingredients of hour-long reality television programming and simply extended it to a two hour documentary film.
“Hoop Dreams” on the other hand, had no fundamental precedent. When interviewed by The Washington Post in 2004, William Gates acknowledged that he and Arthur Agee were, effectively, pioneer reality TV stars. They were never paid millions for their endurance on the streets (although the producers did share some $200,000 in profits with the boys’ families). They were never part of a series of token reality stars who would foray into glamorous careers, garnering fame just for having had their lives broadcast on television.
They were never spared the infamy and judgement that such a film could surely cast upon their families, their schools, their personal decisions. Their roles in the film were, taken at their most innocent, basically unmotivated. The same might be said of the boys of “Baraka.” However, given the context of their experiences, perhaps growing up and watching reality television themselves, it can be argued that these young men knew how to pull punches before the camera.
One final mark of a great documentary is its ability to transcend time. Documentaries that can teach us just as much about ourselves today as they were able to when first filmed are the real stand-outs. Although their subject matter may no longer be popular topics, certain documentaries offer us characters and themes that are memorable and instructive. The question of what happens to the characters after the cameras stop rolling is always resonant, but this can be the case even if we don’t care about the characters at all. The merit of a great documentary leaves us not only thinking about the specific characters entrenched in a particular situation, but about ourselves, about every man and every woman given a similar situation. Achieving this in a documentary requires an uncompromising commitment to telling the whole story.
This work is best left to the subjects of the documentary, rather than to a well-rehearsed narrative offered by a gravelly Hollywood voice. Both “Hoop Dreams” and “Baraka” are committed to presenting the underbelly of life in urban housing developments. Yet, “Hoop Dreams,” by focusing on only two families, still manages to tell a more well-rounded film than “Baraka.” “Hoop Dreams” offers us two young boys who could be born anywhere, to anyone, and still cling to dreams of playing professional basketball. “Baraka” offers us some universalities, and memorable characters to boot. However, the stories told and the scenes played out are too abbreviated and do not succeed in answering our questions. The subplots are there in “Baraka,” but we are simply not granted access to them.
I continue to go back and watch “Hoop Dreams” again and again, sometimes to remind myself of what it is to live solely for a dream, sometimes to remind myself of my own dreams. I will always recommend “Baraka” for those who may have an interest in its subject matter, but I will probably only view it again myself because of something I couldn’t remember, not because of a lesson I could not forget.