oscar dreams

Three weeks and counting… to Oscar night! Christy and I and another couple have an annual tradition of picking Oscar winners. We haven’t gotten to it yet, but it’s always fun competition. And one of our favorite TV personalities, Jon Stewart, will host Oscar night. We’re looking forward to the evening March 5.

Most of the talk this year is about Brokeback Mountain. It is widely believed to be the favorite to run the Oscars, particularly Best Picture and Best Director. Another film that caused much public “water cooler” discussion was Crash. Released in May, it is still widely talked about, with special screenings being hosted with discussion to follow. I have not seen Brokeback; I saw Crash after it came out on DVD. It is interesting that these two movies nominated for Best Picture discuss topics most of us are afraid to talk about: homosexuality and racism.

As a member of the North Texas Conference Anti-Racism Team, I have been through extensive training on the evil of racism. Grounded in white superiority, racism tells our sisters and brothers of color that they are second-class citizens. Even though I have many loving relationships with persons of color, I know that American society and its institutions were built with the idea to serve white people and exclude others. As Crash excellently illustrates, racism is so powerful that it can reveal our true character without our consent—before we have a chance to take back that comment or make that destructive choice.

As great as Crash is, it obviously is not the first film to address the issue of racism. But while everyone is talking about that movie, I would like to discuss another, which, unlike Crash, does not set out to explore racism. The other night Christy and I watched Hoop Dreams, the acclaimed 1994 documentary about two African-American youth from the projects in Chicago who are consumed with dreams of playing in the NBA. Both are recruited for the same private high school. Both struggle with the pressures of life on the basketball court and home. Hoop Dreams is about basketball, love for the game that is instilled day after day of practice. But lurking underneath the game, there was the face of evil itself: racism.

The only way the boys know to escape the poverty and crime they have grown up with is playing a game. To develop that chance further, they must go to a predominantly white school in suburban Chicago—a daily three hour round trip on the “L.” Once there, the boys are treated differently, based on their skill level. The one who started on varsity as a freshman is given full scholarship money and a summer job; the one who played on the freshman team is eventually forced to drop out of school for lack of tuition money. Later colleges recruit them both, and when they accept the opportunity for further education, they are driven even further from home and family.

The boys learn quickly that while it was love of the game that inspired them to begin playing, basketball on higher levels ultimately has very little to do with the game itself, and everything to do with generating money for individuals and institutions. See how racism works? They are forced to live in high poverty/high crime areas. The schools are in terrible shape. There is little hope. Drug abuse and violence are rampant. They are given a chance to get out, only to see themselves separated from all they know and love. I am grateful for Hoop Dreams, giving me an insider’s view to a world that I have been insulated from. After you have seen the film, go to
http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A27976-2004Jul4?language=printer for a follow-up on the young men featured in the film.

The irony is that while Hoop Dreams was undoubtedly one of the best films of 1994, it was not nominated for Best Picture; in fact, due to antiquated rules of the Motion Picture Association of America, it was not even eligible for an Oscar for Best Documentary. Nevermind. Those of us who love movies never let Oscar or the MPAA determine what is fine filmmaking and what is not.

If I were a betting man, my money for Best Picture of 2005 would be on Brokeback Mountain. Whether it or Crash wins, I hope they will push us to think about what is going on in our society, and correct its inherent evils and biases, be they homophobia, racism, whatever. While I wait for the envelope to be opened, I will pause and remember Hoop Dreams. I will be thankful for this masterpiece of cinema, which teaches us that whether or not we make those final free throws with no time left on the clock, we are still champions—able to overcome all evils and oppression—if our hearts are in the right place.