Steve James directs William Gates, Arthur Agee and Gene Pingatore in this groundbreaking documentary about black working class teenagers with the talent to earn basketball scholarships being churned up in the competitive high school system.
Possibly my favourite documentary and indisputably one of the very finest. If you ever have trouble articulating how racism operates and restricts lives then just show someone this perfect film. Witness the unremarked upon back foot and disadvantages the black kids start with when they are just taking shots in their local playgrounds. Watch how the white suburban school system recruits then exploits or abandons these kids. They only have one value, to win trophies, and if they can’t the school ain’t keeping them on. Note the switches in William and Arthur’s home lives as threats to their welfare, grades, street violence and family stability start to encroach in on their dreams to be professional athletes. See how the one lad who does stick with the more prestigious school has his confidence knocked out of him and his self worth emotionally beaten by being one of the few black faces in that environment. Acknowledge the grim reality of the college scholarship the other lad who has coasted his way through the public school system (with zero support from the school who discarded him) finally earns. A MDF divided house populated by the few black boys. They are clearly being unofficially segregated from the white students in the middle of nowhere. That ain’t no university experience where these kids can network and learn professional interaction. They are never being prepped for a future that doesn’t involve them playing college ball but both their horizons shift away from earning from the sport. It is a film with true life villains: the bullying, hectoring, unsympathetic Coach Pingatore makes a terrible show of himself. The filmmakers present all this without comment. The captured evidence speaks for itself. And there are as many moments of triumph as there are adversity and plenty of character arcs that will surprise you as they unfold. My favourite minute came in the final half hour when we see Arthur and William interacting on camera for the first time and, rather than acting like rivals, they clearly have developed a fraternity and affection from being part of this revolutionary four year project. A very sweet, unexpected scene. It has been 25 years since I last watched this… I’m not going to wait that long again.
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