Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge.
The spotlight is on two young men who grew up about 25 miles from where I did. The background is the background of my life: the Sears Tower, El tracks, the United Center, Michael Jordan on TV. Their lives are nothing like mine. Where El trains were used for recreation to get to Cubs games and joy rides around the loop, William and Arthur were doing the reverse commute at age 14. Cabrini-Green was where children killed other children on the TV. For them, it was home.
St. Joseph High School could have been mine, but all-men and parochial. Marshall High School was a world away... but my school may have played them from time to time, our team patting themselves on the back for winning against a city school, then returning to the tutelage of full-time coaches who consulted with the Bulls Staff, and had money to design some snazzy uniforms due to an agreement with Nike. When Arthur Agee's Marshall team plays Peoria Manual, I'm thinking about Wayne McClain, and trying to remember who was on his roster that year. I KNOW these teams. I know these neighborhoods. I know this city.
To me, the gulf between my world and theirs, was not insurmountable in terms of geography, economics, or race. Classes in the United States are pretty fluid. The scene that crystallized exactly the difference between the posh, comfy suburban upbringing and that of a poor boy in the inner city of Chicago was the scene of Arthur Agee's family walking around the University of Illinois campus. (In this YouTube video, it starts at 8:20) Silently, in awe, they walk along the west side of my Alma Mater's quad:
Arthur's Dad: Be a good place for a man to come.
Arthur's Mom: Like a whole different world
Arthur's Brother: It's beyond different.
(Me: I cry. For the first time in all of this, I get it.)
Their Chicago is nothing like my "Chicagoland". From as long as I can remember, my parents (both Illinois grads as well), would bring me down to Champaign, walk around the Quad, buy the next larger size Illini t-shirts from Te-Shurt on Wright Street for all three kids, then have lunch at the McDonald's on Green Street that they razed along with the Co-Ed Theater to make some high-rise apartment block. Sometimes my grandmother and sister would join us (both graduates of Illinois State - my Great-Aunt with a Masters), and talk about how when my grandfather had attended school at Illinois, he knew the first Chief Illiniwek and saw Red Grange run for 6 touchdowns against Michigan in 1924. That I would go to Illinois myself was never in doubt. It was the best state school available, I was smart, and every thing was settled at age 4 that I would be part of a third generation to bleed Orange and Blue.
The Agee family is not worried about college. Heck, Arthur doesn't even have to go. They aren't necessarily on board when he decides to pursue both college and basketball by moving to Missouri. They are worried about things that were taken for granted by my family: day-to-day survival - food, shelter, gang violence, drug dealers, drug addicts, domestic violence. Any one of these things would rip a hole in suburban life. In the Chicago of Hoop Dreams, there seemed little escape.
Which is why I wept for Sheila Agee. Here is a woman supporting her family on $1000 per month. She is putting herself through a nursing aide program, and sobbed when she discovered she graduated first in her class. Meanwhile, she is separating from her drug-addicted husband, trying to raise teenagers, and dealing with crippling poverty. But she gets her education. I don't think I ever appreciated my academic accomplishments the way she did when she graduated from her vocational program. With fewer barriers, this was a woman who could change the world. With the world against her, she was a hurricane - a definite force to reckon with. Walking around the Illinois campus, I knew she could feel the weight of opportunity in sending a child away from the violence and daily struggles to learn - just learn. The only thing I wished to see would be the look on her face when her son graduated from Arkansas State 3 years after filming concluded. I hope she was able to have her opportunity. And if not her, I hope that Arthur's brother could have seen college as an opportunity for himself in this moment.