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Posts from the ‘Reading Journal’ Category

Free Agency in “Hoop Dreams”

Arthur Agee shooting a foul shot in the documentary “Hoops Dreams”- picture from


In this remarkable documentary, filmmaker Steven James depicts the lives of two African-American boys growing up in inner-city Chicago involved with the lifestyle, success, and hardships surrounding the ultimate out of basketball. As Arthur Agee  and William Gates begin to accumulate success and tribulation as they follow their ultimate dreams of playing in the NBA, Director James depicts the lives of his subjects as containing agency- personal choices that change their futures, as well as the mercy they feel towards others and outside forces.

One of the key examples of this idea of “free agency” the characters appear to have in the beginning, is the ability to go to the critically-acclaimed basketball program at St. Joseph’s High school, due to the characters’ own, developed talents. As William Gates continues to grow and improve throughout the film, the viewer gets a sense that he possess more agency, with options such as scholarships and sponsorship, tutoring for the ACT provided by the school, and even a summer job position.

However, as we continue to follow the lives of the two rising-stars, the viewers observe the decreasing agency of Arthur as his improvement and skills do not match the previously held expectations of coach Pingatore. Faced with tuition increases in the mid-semester of his freshman year, Arthur’s family cannot meet the new added expenses and he is forced to leave. While the school appears to just be following the law, the viewers observe the same issue with William resolved, due to added financial aid from a personal sponsor. In this specific example, one can see how William’s desired talents allow him more options, yet Arthur’s inability to meet such high expectations in a constantly competitive sport, creates outside control over his life and future.

Following this single event that takes place towards the beginning of the documentary, allows for one to see the butterfly effect throughout its entirety. The fact that by not meeting rigorous and somewhat grueling basketball expectations, the boys are constantly at the mercy of the game and how other more powerful people control them. James uses this depiction of agency, in my opinion, in order to shed some light on the limiting factors of the boys’ choices. Anything, or outside source that affects their value as a commodity, decreases their personal control, which would mean that their overall control is very limited even to begin with. In the words of William Gates, ” People always say to me, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me.’ Well, I should’ve said back, ‘if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me.'” (

The Agency of Arthur Agee

Steve James’ documentary Hoop Dreams was released in 1994 and tells the story of two African American boys, William and Arthur, and their struggle to reach their dreams of playing pro basketball.  Throughout the entire film, the audience watches William and Arthur encounter a number of decisions that prove to have a large impact on their lives, as well as the lives of their families.  Despite the issues each new decision brings, almost everyone has the same end result in mind:  a career in the NBA.

In the movie, Arthur Agee has to decide what university/college would be best for him to attend; the idea of what is “best for him” encompasses what is best for his family and what his parents most approve of.  When meeting with the scout from Mineral Area College, Arthur sits between his mother and father, and contemplates what the “best move” would be.  On the one shoulder, Arthur’s dad, “Bo,” assures his son that any college he picks would be the right choice.  He goes on to say that even if the family has to struggle financially, they would help him achieve his dream.  While Bo is communicating this to Arthur, we see his mother, Sheila, on the other side of him shaking her head.  She is not as fond of the idea of suffering financially in order to realize Arthur’s dream; she’d prefer that Arthur attend Mineral Area College because it would be paid for, and be the responsible thing to do.  The conflicting parental views most likely stem from Bo wanting to relive his lost basketball dreams through his teenage son, and Sheila’s motherly instinct to have her entire family’s best interests at heart.  In addition to these contradictions, across from Arthur sits the Mineral Area scout, a man whose salary depends on recruiting talent and who wants to seal the deal as quickly and smoothly as possible.  The whole scene depicts a situation in which all the pressure rests on the shoulders of one teenage boy.  Ultimately, Arthur accepts the offer to Mineral Area College; whether it was of his own agency is undeterminable.  As a boy with a close relationship to his mother, the audience could assume that his choice was largely swayed by her opinion and Arthur’s wish to please her.

I think James chose to depict individual agency the way he did because he wanted to emphasize how complicated it was for these two African-American teens to accomplish what they so strongly desired.  It was apparent that William and Arthur’s decisions not only influenced their futures, but the futures of their families.  Although their personal circumstances were different, it seemed like all the choices each of the boys made were carefully considered and took multiple people into account, showing that the dreams of certain individuals are not so simply transformed into reality.  Some, unfortunately, are even impossible.

Just Another Piece of Meat

William Gates with St. Joseph's Coach Gene Pingatore

In the movie “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James made it clear that a lot of what happened in William and Arthur’s lives had nothing to do with them, but rather their path was chosen for them by external factors.  Proof of this lies with one specific instance at the beginning of the movie where talent scout Earl Smith is scouting 8th graders for the basketball team at St. Josephs in Chicago.  In the movie they focus on Smith and his interaction with Arthur but James also stated in the movie that Smith did the recruiting of William.  In this scene Smith is telling Arthur why he should be going to St. Joseph’s and why that decision is the best one if Arthur wants to go to a good college and ultimately end up in the NBA.  Arthur doesn’t realize that Smith is not doing this for the good of Arthur, but rather he wants Arthur to go to St. Joseph’s to increase his recruiting profile and look better for the coach.  Once Arthur gets to St. Joseph’s he loses all contact with Smith (until his last game as a Senior with Marshall High School) and feels like he got taken advantage of.


So the question here is, is this what filmmaker Steve James wanted us to feel as an audience?  Did he want us to feel that Arthur was forced into this decision of attending St. Joseph’s not knowing what was lying ahead?  The answer to me is yes.  It became obvious throughout the movie that Steve James wanted to show how coaches and scouts take advantage of inner city kids and their “dream” of making it out of the ghetto.  They know that these kids want to hear how they can make it to the NBA and that is what the coaches tell them.  So, while Arthur was old enough to make a decision about whether or not to go to public school or to attend St. Joseph’s, Steve James made it clear that he was more or less pushed down the route to St. Joseph’s because of the deceitfulness of the scouts and the way they took advantage of Arthur’s “dream”.


I believe that James was not just trying to show how scouts and coaches drive the lives of young players, but also that recruiting in itself needs to be limited.  He talks about how when Smith went to the playground to scout Arthur how he was looking at 8th Graders like pieces of meat.  When you chose to recruit like this rather than looking at everything in a player’s life, the result is what happened in “Hoop Dreams,” and that is scouts and coaches running the life of a player as if they have no life other than basketball.  Steve James did a great job of letting the truth out about high school basketball and the ethics that are involved in recruiting.  He did so by showing the negative sides of recruiting, and in this unfortunate case the consequences that occur when a player like Arthur Agee let scouts and coaches make the majority of the decisions in his life.

Care Bears Birthday

I watched an episode of the 1985 Care Bears season. When the opening song came on, I immediately saw signs of Cross’ argument that the Program Length Commericals created a separate world for children not related to the realistic one that they would grow up in. During the opening song, one Care Bear sings “I don’t want to be a cook or a fireman, I don’t want to play trombone in the marching band, I just want to be a Care Bear like you!”. This shows that the children were being told not to have ideas of growing up to be something realistic, like a fireman, but instead being told to wish to “be a Care Bear”. During the episode however, the Care Bears visit a real boy who is upset that his parents are neglecting him and not throwing him a birthday party because his baby sister is being born. He’s resentful and angry at his parents. His friend tries to convince him to make a mess of his house to “get back at his parents, and although he’s a little hesitant, he still does do it some. The episode is all about the Care Bears trying to teach the boys a lesson of caring and understanding. The Care Bear’s attempt does reference the real world, as it tries to teach its viewers a moral of the story lesson. In the end, like all happily ever afters, the two boys learn to “care” because of their lesson, and they are happy about seeing the little baby sister. The birthday boy says he understands why his parents couldn’t throw him a party, and he still loves his new little sister. This episode does contradict Cross’ argument, as the Care Bears are trying to actually teach kids a lesson, as opposed to giving a thirty minute, unrealistic commercial of their toy.

G.I. Faux

In the 1986 G.I. Joe cartoon episode, “Computer Complications”, the Joes and Cobras are at their ‘good vs. evil’ antics again. In this particular program-length commercial, both regimes are after a radioactive stash of antimatter located at the bottom of the ocean. The antimatter is so dangerous that the Joes have to send in robot submarines to recover the radioactive substance but not before Cobra orders a strike to dismantle the operation and intercept the antimatter for himself. While many battles ensue at the Joe’s ocean platform base, Cobra and his entourage of baddies try to invade the Joe’s home base to reprogram the submarines. Zarana, Cobra’s stealth and tech specialist, goes undercover as a sexy cadet who seduces and subdues the head of top secret operations for the Joes, Mainframe.


The creation and success of the G.I. Joe PLC through the 1980’s was in great part due to the success of the futuristic Star Wars trilogy from which G.I. borrowed ideas of weapons, space-tech, and most importantly the transcendence of the good vs. evil genre condensing it into a 30 minute cartoon. Drawing upon Gary Cross’s concerns with children and their fantasy play worlds, G.I. Joe: Great American Hero offered very little other than the notion of “good vs. evil”. In fact, the show ended up in stalemates so often that it was hard to tell the difference between the two Cobras and the Joes. Cross adds that “because it was so unrealistic, it was not to take seriously” (298). The narrative of this PLC coincides with Cross’s idea that when kids take home these action figures and their miniature laser canons instead of toy guns modeled after government issued military equipment, they are disconnecting the “national narrative” of war play. The result: parents ended up ignoring their children’s war play and because it was so appealing, the parents of two thirds of American children between the ages of five and eleven ended up ignoring their children’s play in general.


Caring Out of Control

In “Spinning Out of Control,” Gary Cross argues that  children’s television  began to focus on fantasies rather than prepare children for the adult world with the emergence of the “program-length commercial” during the 1980s (290). In order to analyze Cross’s argument, one must be familiar with these “program-length commercials.” Therefore, we will first study an episode of “Care Bears,” a popular 1980s PLC, so we can apply Cross’s argument to the television show.

In the episode “The Long Lost Care Bears,” the Care Bears come across a photo album of the Care Bear family. While looking through the pictures, they come across a photo of two Care Bears that they do not recognize. However, before they are not able to really study the picture in detail because the Caring Meter drops and they must go help who is in trouble. As they are on their way to the victims, the Cloud Mobile becomes caught in a snow storm and crashes. After enduring an avalanche, the Care Bears wake up in a valley. They then meet Perfect and Polite, the two bears that were in the photo in the photo album. These bears saved them from the blizzard and brought them back to their village. After exploring what seems to be a perfect village, the Care Bears realize Perfect and Polite were who the meter was sending them to help. Polite and Perfect were sad because they felt they had no friends or family in the valley. So, the Care Bears invite them back to Care-a-lot to become Care Bears and become a part of a big family of friends. After arriving back in Care-a-lot, Perfect and Polite cannot handle the Care Bear training as they fail at every task. They decide that  perhaps being a Care Bear is not meant for them and decide they will go back to the village. As they are discussing returning to the village, the Caring Meter once again drops and leads them back to the valley. When they return, however, the valley has been hit by a blizzard and is not longer a paradise. A village family is caught in the middle of the blizzard in their cabin and will not leave in fear of freezing to death. Though Perfect and Polite were scared to talk to them before, they decide to try to in order to save them. However, when they will not leave because they are scared of freezing to death, the bears decide to try a “Care Bear Stare” to melt the snow. While doing the stare, Polite and Perfect are unable to stabilize the power of the stare and lose control, causing them to fall to the ground. After they fall and tears fall onto the symbols on their stomachs, glowing spirits raise from their “tummy symbols” to the sky, and suddenly all the snow begins to melt and the valley returns to its normal climate. The villagers thank the bears for saving their lives. Polite and Perfect then decide to stay in the valley rather than return to Care-a-lot because they realize they do have friends in the  valley with the villagers.

Cross’s argument is somewhat supported in this “program-length commercial” based on several factors. First, unless there really is a Care-a-lot in the sky with Care Bears that we do not know about, then the show is set in a fantasy land with fantasy characters, which is what Cross argues is one of the major problems with the PLCs because they are not preparing children for the real world. However, despite the fact that the show is unrealistic, it does contain morals within the story line. For example, in the episode “The Long Lost Care Bears,” Perfect and Polite realize they really do have friends when they make an effort and talk to others more often. This can teach children that, even when they feel lonely and as if they have no friends, they can make friends with the people around them if they have the right attitude and are a little out going. Therefore, Cross is correct in his argument that the PLCs are set in fantasies rather than real life scenarios, but fails to recognize the fact that the “program-length commercials” have underlining themes that contain morals and are set in a fantasy in order to make the visuals and story line more appealing to the child viewer (296).

Here is a link for the “The Long Lost Care Bears” Care Bears episode:
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G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero?

In the chapter Spinning out of Control, Gary Cross states that during the 1980’s, “toys lost their connection to the experience and expectations of parents” in order to enter “a realm of ever-changing fantasy” (309). With this he implies that when toys became centered around fantasies instead of realistic issues, they lost their educational value and became less useful for the lives of children. He then goes on to argue how through the use of program length commercials, Television played a major role in the further detachment of toys from any realistic context.

Program length commercials, or PLC’s, were TV shows that promoted a specific toy by giving children “a set of fantasy situations and personalities upon which to model play”. Among the most popular PLC’s, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is the only one that caused me to agree with Cross’s argument. When referring to this particular PLC he says that it “offered boys no more than a simple vision of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ in a fantasy world where violence was a constant” and that it “certainly did not orient children to the real world of international politics”. When looking at the current American political atmosphere, it is curious to see how the rhetoric revolving American Foreign Policy is so similar to that in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

On the day of 9/11, President George W. Bush told the American people that we were attacked because we are “a beacon for freedom” and because the attackers were “evil”. Since that day, this oversimplified view of the problem has actually been the prevailing view among politicians and citizens across the country. In the G.I. Joe theme song, there is one particular part that echoes a profound similarity to the speech given by President Bush:

GI Joe is the codename for American’s daring, highly trained
special mission force.
It’s purpose, to defend human freedom against Cobra-
a ruthless, terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

This is probably the reason why many critics “complained that G.I. Joe and other action-figure lines celebrated the United States as high-tech world policeman” (298).

Gary Cross is right when he says that this PLC fails to teach children that world politics is not simply an issue of good vs. evil, where the U.S. government is the good guy and whatever country they happen to be fighting at the time is the evil enemy. As Ron Paul explains in one republican debate, there are a lot of reasons behind the 9/11 attack other than pure hatred and desire to spread terror. It is important to teach children that their actions have consequences and that before judging a situation they have to look at the context as well as the different perspectives of those involved.

Side Note: I am not trying to justify the 9/11 tragedy in any way.