“Hoop Dreams,” widely regarded as the best sports documentary of all time, again proved at a special 30th anniversary Denver Film Festival screening Sunday that the dream to rise out of inner-city poverty to NBA riches remains largely an impossible one.
There are approximately 450 players in the NBA. Only about 330 are from the United States, while there are millions of kids from every economic way of life with designs on those jobs. Put another way: There are more than 40 million lightning strikes in this country every year. Only about 250 people ever get hit, according to the National Weather Service. The odds are about the same.
Local slam-poet champion and actor Theo Wilson – also known as “Lucifury” – thinks these kids need to be encouraged to have more than one dream. Because the promise of scoring one of those precious NBA jobs is just a cruel tease.
“I come from a community that had a lot of gang activity,” said Wilson, who went to George Washington High School. “There was dope boys and drug dealers. And I remember the boys who was taller than me and stronger than me – they all wanted to be professional athletes. And they leaned into that dream like they were playing lottery tickets. Because what you have each year, basically, is a million Black boys with a lottery ticket.”
Mark Randall, a legendary Colorado prep basketball star who graduated from Cherry Creek High School, played two seasons with the Denver Nuggets and worked for 14 years as a community ambassador for the team, watched “Hoop Dreams” for the first time ever on Sunday and was visibly moved. The film famously follows the precarious lives of two inner-city Chicago boys struggling to become college basketball players. More than that, it uses high school hoops to explore issues of race, class and education inequities in the U.S.
“That was very deep. Very impactful,” said Randall, now manager of high school athletics for Denver Public Schools. Randall and Wilson were joined at the MCA Denver’s Holiday Theatre by documentary filmmaker Stephanie Sunata for a panel discussion about community that was led by Viniyanka Prasad, executive director of a nonprofit called The Word: A Storytelling Sanctuary.
“The fact that you aren’t even breathing right now is the work of community,” Wilson said. “We often forget about that, but there is no ‘me’ without the ‘we’ and there never will be a ‘you’ without the folks that you came from.”
Professional sports teams routinely send their players into local schools to show kids living proof that the dream does come true for some. Afterward, I asked Randall and Wilson if Denver’s pro sports teams might do more good by asking their players to encourage students in other artistic and professional career pursuits. Like, say, attending a high school musical, a student slam-poetry event or a math competition.
Randall pointed at me and said, “Preacher.” He then pointed at himself and said, “Choir.”
“I know the value of that, and we want to get them out there doing exactly that,” he said. One current Nugget – “I won’t name him, but he has the ‘It’ factor,” he said, “is actually out there right now doing that work on his own. He just shows up out of the blue, and he’s making an impact. We need more players like that – because, while I am obviously a firm believer in sports, I do think that, as a society, we put way too much emphasis on sports. But the reality is that kids will look up to athletes – and so to have an athlete come to your school play, yeah, that kind of thing can have a major impact on a kid.”
Wilson read a basketball poem called “The Mustangs,” from indigenous poet Natalie Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection titled “Postcolonial Love Poem.” The poem speaks to the glory she felt at age 10 watching her big brother play basketball for his reservation high school team. In partnership with the city of Denver and the National Endowment for the Arts, The Word has just launched a Denver-wide book club called “The Big Read,” with Diaz’s book as the inaugural selection.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“One of the questions being asked among filmmakers is, ‘Would “Hoop Dreams” be made today?’ Would it be greenlit as three White guys telling the story of two Southside Black Chicago kids? And I think the consensus in the industry is generally, no, it wouldn’t.” – filmmaker Stephanie Sunata
SCREENING OF THE DAY
Today’s centerpiece screening is the eye-opening documentary “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” at 7 p.m. at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Underneath the multi-layered persona of media titan Tyler Perry is a man working to transform his childhood trauma from pain into promise. (Perry will not be present.)
For the first time, the Denver Film Festival will honor an entire team of filmmakers, writers and producers who collaborate to take the filmmaking form to new heights. The inaugural winners of the 5280 Award are the team from “Spider-Man: Across the Universe.” They will be honored before a special screening of the film at 5:30 p.m. at the AMC 9.
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
The festival’s annual Stan Brakhage Vision Award was presented to Janie Geiser after a screening of “Double Vision,” a collection of her recent short films. The Brakhage Award is named after the late University of Colorado professor who is considered by many to be the Picasso of 20th-century experimental filmmakers for pushing the limits of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking.
Geiser is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes cinema, performance and installation. Her work is known for its recontextualization of abandoned images and objects, its embrace of artifice, and its investigation of memory, power and loss.
Also, the festival’s annual Maria & Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award went to writer and director Carolina Cavalli. Her 2022 debut feature film “Amanda” follows a lonely 24-year-old woman whose mission is to convince her childhood friend that they are still best friends. The award comes with a $10,000 honorarium.
The charmer of the day was 15-year-old Charley Hogan, an actor who appears in “Frybread Face and Me.” That’s the coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old city boy (Kier Tallman) who strikes up a begrudging friendship with his cousin (Hogan) on a Navajo reservation. Asked if she learned anything about herself in the making of the film, Hogan said the four Rs of the film represent the four Rs she is taught at home: “Respect, relationships, reciprocity and responsibility.”
TITLE OF THE DAY
“Housekeeping for Beginners” is a multinational European effort focusing on a woman forced to raise her girlfriend’s two troublemaking daughters. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 4:45 p.m. Wednesday at the AMC9.
INFORMATION AND TICKETS
Go to denverfilm.org