Pass it on (Cinéma vérité: Part 4 of 4)
The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
I came across this quote from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while reading up on “poverty porn,” which is defined like this:
Any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor's condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers, increasing charitable donations, or support for a given cause.
I scribbled notes as I watched Hoop Dreams (1994) that offer surface-level insight into what makes it great: a view into poor Southside Chicago, Jordan, the divine joy of winning, how authentic happiness feels in documentaries, the quaint sad joy of basketball house (where the full-ride scholarship kids live off campus), the pressure of being 18 and having to make significant life decisions, the enormous amount of footage the filmmakers must’ve amassed over the five years of filming to make the film possible, the list goes on. I don’t preface this with an excerpt relating to poverty porn to say that Hoop Dreams is an example of this. (There’s undoubtedly an ungenerous argument one could make that white filmmakers telling this story is a form of exploitation.) I preface it because how we, as viewers, react to this film can be a form of poverty porn.1
Hoop Dreams is a great movie. It has been added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Siskel and Ebert both named it their top movie of the year (they agreed!) I’m writing about it as we speak, so it’s already got the big three behind it. But as I prepare to lavish it with praise, with a familiar enthusiasm that I would lavish on shows like The Wire (2002-2008) or Breaking Bad (2008-2013), or even films like last week’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), I have to pause and wonder why this fervor feels familiar? Why must I spread the gospel of Hoop Dreams?
It’s fine to go through life and never wonder why you enjoy the things you enjoy or the movies you watch. If you like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) because it’s got some laughs and a happy ending, that’s great. But, are you sure you don’t like it because it’s about a useless white male whose idiosyncrasies end up (twist!) being the key to his salvation as he humiliates his ambitious ex-girlfriend repeatedly, making her realize how stupid she was for dumping him? Her new boyfriend even joins in the shaming! Is it possible that’s the part of the movie you like? My suspicion of films that exist to prop up the male ego dates back to childhood, trying to figure out why my Dad was a little too into It Could Happen to You (1994), a little too eager to identify with Nic Cage’s aw-shucks, down-to-earth, working stiff who keeps his promise to split a winning lottery ticket with a hot waitress because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t even get me started on his wife and her funny accent.
I worked in San Francisco in 2016, and an email thread went around the office one day. A coworker was asking for TV recommendations for her maternity leave (a good use of company time, I know), and, as you might expect, multiple recommendations were made for The Wire. One coworker, a guy who was probably the only 2a activist in the city, responded heartily supporting the wire recommendation in his dorky-but-for-guns fashion by saying, “Omar comin’!” I stared at his response for a bit. Wait, why did he like The Wire? Was it for the devastatingly vast threading of plots to illustrate the complexity of the way society marginalizes people while blocking paths to reconciliation? Or was it because Omar carried a big gun and walked around in charge of the streets?
Art can be a wonderful escape: fantasy exists for a reason. It’s good to have an escape sometimes. I’ll say it again: It’s totally fine to go through life and never wonder why you like the things you like. The unexamined life might be worth living, but you also might be an asshole. I would argue (as I’ve done before in this letter) that It’s better to understand why you like those things. What part of it speaks to you? Does it feel personal, like it’s about you? Could it be about you? Or are you just super into trains, and this particular movie has Chris Pine and a train!
I can’t recommend Hoop Dreams enough. I feel that itch to rave to my friends about a movie I just saw that feels so much like The Wire, and not just because they’re both portraits of complex systems of injustice. It exposes me to an aspect of the social experience I’ve never encountered before, as a White man, from the comfort of a big room with a nice TV, typing away without a care in the world. It took me through five years of hell for these south-side Chicago kids, and I got to feel like I was living it with them. To feel like I’ve been on the streets. To feel their joy in victory and their heartbreak in defeat. Just like when I watched The Wire: five intense seasons of television that taught me what it was like in the roughest neighborhoods, and how to speak with a Baltimore accent and explain the rules of wiretapping in Maryland in 2004 while I’m at dinner parties. I know what it’s all about now.
Except that I haven’t truly experienced anything. Truth is a marathon, not a sprint. Cinéma vérité sounds nice on paper, and Hoop Dreams is considered one of the most outstanding examples of the style, but it’s not actual vérité. At its worst, it proves Warner Herzog annoyingly correct.
At its best, it can stir pontification of the best kind for people who consider why art speaks to them. (e.g. this post) We’ve all imbibed art; regardless of whether it’s a great film, the greatest TV show of all time, a comic book, a play, or whatever, it will only ever serve as a stereotype in place of experiencing the complexity of being a human on earth. I don’t know what these kids playing basketball have genuinely gone through any more than the guy I worked with knows how to carry himself in the streets of West Baltimore, packing all the guns he can get his hands on.
The story of these kids moves me, but how does one write about a movie about the Black experience in America without any experience if watching a movie shouldn’t count as experience? To take it even further, why even watch movies if it’s wrong to feel like you’ve personally experienced something? We shouldn’t watch movies to feel like we’re experiencing events, in the case of this film, partaking in poverty porn. We should watch because we’re trying to empathize with someone else who is having their own experience. And then, in a victory for anyone who believes movies have the power to change the world, we will have gained some empathy for people and cultures foreign to us. Maybe if the stars align, that empathy can be put to good use someday. Like the billboards in the poorest parts of the country say:
Written by Frederick Marx and Steve James; Directed by Steve James
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Streaming on Criterion Channel, HBO Max, and Peacock
You’ll like this if you like: The Wire (2002-2008)or The Last Dance (2020)