Only in America could something so cliched, a story of black struggle in urban inner cities, also materialize with such cinematic vibrancy, and inspire us and remind us once more that the only things really worth doing in life are the impossible.
Hoop Dreams’ director, Steve James, is white (and from Virginia, to boot), but one of the most gripping and culturally sovereign monologues within the film comes autonomically from Spike Lee, who delivers a starkly disillusioned piece of ranting advice to the participants at a Princeton summer basketball camp. While holding a basketball, a gesture to seemingly depict an authority fictitious but intimidating nonetheless, Lee unleashes a veritable torrent of accusations against the white administrators of colleges, claiming sundry atrocities from financial greed to humanistic apathy, and everything in between. The scene has the brash, almost doomsday tint of prisons, calling to mind the Scared Straight episodes which would follow in the late ’90’s. To be sure, “sense of urgency” is an understatement here. Lee barks at the young black gentlemen in a state of anger and wrath, manifest from the inherent predicament of his people. And acting was never his forte, nor is it here — it’s an earnest razing of the walls of cultural custom.
It would be easy to call this the most important scene in the movie, because it’s the visual and aural materialization of romanticism’s end, and the “real world”’s deadly propagation. The harsh reality like a slab of beef is forcefed into these young men’s mouths, that they’re embarking upon a possible situation in which their perceived value as people is only proportional to how they monetarily benefit fat white men in suits.
And of course this scene is fairly digestible for white people too, as we all to an extent undergo this capitalistic paradigm. Juxtapose this then with James’ insertion of a snippet from Ice Cube’s “Message to the Oreo Cookie,” an anti-racist manifesto of bone-deep disillusion, rage and pain. For the casual viewer of Hoop Dreams, who may be gleaning entertainment value from the story as well as slang ideas from the young black people’s conversation, this Cube sound byte might seem unnecessary, but then that Lee scene illustrates how it obviously isn’t — this is the side of black you don’t see even from VIEWING THE LIVES OF BLACK PEOPLE FIRSTHAND, which as a documentary, Hoop Dreams does encapsulate. Another reason why “Oreo Cookie” is so relevant to the film’s development is that per the documentary’s discourse, it is seen how black people are indeed set up as “product” — of which the value, as I stated before, is proportional only to their ability to be marketable and profitable (the snippet is even 30 seconds long, just like a commercial). And it’s not even really an understatement to say that it’s “all or nothing.” So even apart from the actual sociological motif of black success — a sudden deluge of money where before there were none — Hoop Dreams fills in the blanks underneath this glossy, traceable phenomenon, reminding us that these are people, not celebrities on an assured track, nor cartoon characters playing the role in some glamorized story. James seems to be setting up black reality as a tautological atrocity, in which financial success only gives the mirage of happiness.