TALK OF a great American novel set in Chicago is more likely to have you thinking of Saul Bellow than of a three-hour documentary about basketball. Yet Steve James's remarkable Hoop Dreams (15), which traces five years in the lives of two black Chicago teenagers aspiring to be pro-basketball players, has the amplitude and scope of the best social-realist fiction. Don't be put off if you can't distinguish a point guard from a slam dunk: the play is not the only thing. The fantasies that the boys pursue on the court are the dim light at the end of the tunnel in which inner-city kids like them grow up. Unlike many of the coaches who exploit the boys, the film-makers are as interested in them as people, as athletes, as concerned with their difficult and deprived lives, as with their hoop dreams.
The two teenagers come from similarly straitened backgrounds. William Gates's father has left his mother, and is a shadowy presence in both the film and his son's life. Gates's brother, Curtis, missed his big shot at basketball stardom through indiscipline. Arthur Agee, too, comes from an unstable home: during the film his father leaves his mother and sells crack on the streets (near where Arthur practises ball), before being arrested for burglary. William and Arthur have the same goals and the same joy in basketball, but from the outset widely different personalities. We get to know them like family, and root for them like fans.
In this business, physique is destiny. From the start William has the height and power that send him into the fast stream. And yet he greets his success - and most of life too - with a smiling wariness. Arthur is shorter, and impish on and off court. Both boys win basketball scholarships to the exclusive private school, St Joseph's - a powerful sequence traces the car journey from grey project slums to spruce suburban lawns. But soon Arthur's slight stature is preventing him from making the expected progress on court. The school confronts Arthur's parents over unpaid fees, and expels him.
To unravel the boys' intricate destinies from this point - except to say that they are, in both cases, tortuous but hopeful - would be to give away the plot. And also to miss the point. Whether or not these boys drag themselves out of the ghetto, the film shows how pitifully inadequate the escape route is. Education is a kind of bribe; and you can't help noticing how much of the basketball hierarchy - coaches, commentators, sponsors, scouts - is white. When William has knee surgery (paid for by St Joseph's), his prone, anaesthetised body makes us feel he has become a commodity - a receptacle for other people's dreams.
St Joseph's coach, Gene Pingatore, is the villain of the film, though he's more misguided than malevolent. He goads William to emulate the great Chicago Bulls player Isiah Thomas, his star former pupil. The portly Pingatore shouts and shoves his way through the film, threatening and cajoling his lithe black charges, like a parody of white supremacy. William's brother, Curtis, wants William to have the career he himself missed. And William's sponsors at the Encyclopaedia Brit- annica want prestige in return for their investment. At a training camp, which William attends, Spike Lee gives the boys a dyspeptic lecture on their exploitation for financial profit. It reeks of Lee's own sourness, but also rings true. Watching these young men being sized up and signed on reminds you of another trade in which black bodies were bartered: slavery.
What prevents the movie from being mere polemic is the richness and resilience of its black lives. Arthur's mother emerges as a particularly heroic figure - encouraging and disciplining her wayward son, coping with the abuse from her even more unman-ageable husband, and finding time to come top of her class in her nursing examinations. Black critics have criticised the film for fostering stereotypes of black men as inferior to their women. In fact, Arthur's father, Bo, returns to the fold with impressive humility, and is articulate and supportive, when Arthur is deciding which university to join.
The overwhelming mood, though, is one of sadness. It's there on the soundtrack, in a soulful sax solo which refrains throughout the picture. And it is there in the morose system that takes the joy in young black lives and turns it into a profession. There is a shot early on of the 14-year-old Arthur's dazzling, wide-yet- bashful smile, as he gets to play on court with his idol, Isiah Thomas. By the end of the film, success beckons both boys, but the smiles have soured. A system without integrity has stripped them of their innocence. And their hoop dreams have become another American nightmare.
The race-relations theme is continued in Just Cause (18), in which a black prisoner, on death row for a brutal murder in the Florida Everglades, complains of the way the system that raised him to a scholarship at Cornell spat him out after he was mistakenly charged with rape. Sean Connery plays a Harvard law professor and opponent of capital punishment, who fights for his release. Laurence Fishburne (as mean as ever) is the brutal police officer who beat the confession out of the boy. There's also a stock, bible-thumping serial killer (Ed Harris, with heavy debts to Anthony Hopkins); and Connery's wife is played by Steven Spielberg's wife Kate Capshaw (don't give up the marriage). Connery is sadly lacking in vigour, and the script rarely sparkles. But the climax is cruelly effective.
Spike Lee's Crooklyn (12) is a very minor Lee - so minor that it only has a limited release. It's his most intimate and least accessible work so far, an auto- biographical portrait of a large, squabbling Brooklyn family. The father is a jazz composer (like Lee's), struggling to express himself. His children have imbibed "attitude" with their mother's milk.
There is a lot of joshing and impenetrable in-jokery, but also an affecting, late-flowering plot. The movie is marred by Lee's trademark inverse racism: the only white character is a limp-wristed gay caricature, who gets a vicious come-uppance.
The Taviani brothers' Fiorile (12) never quite delivers on the promise of its elegantly ominous opening scenes. The film follows the course of the accursed Benedetti family from the Napoleonic wars to the present day. A bad deed in the 18th century reverberates down the years, sending an old man in today's Tuscany into desperate solitude. His son tells the grim story to his children in the car as they travel to holiday with the old man. There is a powerful sense of the ramifications of evil deeds over time, but the film rarely delves beneath its painterly rural imagery.
Cinema details: Review, page 82.
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