Oscar’s big miss: ‘Hoop Dreams’

Posted by · 10:35 am · February 22nd, 2012

Nearly every year there are a number of films that Oscar simply seems to miss. Just recently Steve McQueen addressed some of the reasons he believes that Oscar ignored Michael Fassbender’s performance in what was, for me, one of the best films of the year: “Shame.” Certainly Guy, Kris and I have all expressed our support for “Margaret” and our wish that the Academy voters had caught onto its value in time for it to make even a small showing.

Over the years there have been a number of omissions that have inspired either a quiet or riotous outcry from audiences and critics circles. In recent memory “The Dark Knight” and “Dreamgirls” were each considered shocking snubs by many given their momentum in the precursor circuit. In general terms, there are certain categories that tend to yield frustrating nominations and wins due to nonsensical and counterproductive voting practices.

This year”s Best Original Song field is droopy at best with only one song from “The Muppets” (if the world made sense there would be three) and two songs in total. In a noteworthy turn of events in another oft problematic arena for the Academy, documentarian Steve James”s “The Interrupters” (a film which many expected to win Best Documentary Feature) failed to receive a nomination.

An overhaul of the Academy”s documentary branch was already in the works, but the hope is that the shifts will correct the oversights that have plagued the documentary field over the years. The new regulations will eliminate the practice of splitting the submissions into groups and limit entries to films that have been reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times.

James is also the director of the film that, for me, represents the Oscars’ most stunning and lasting snub of the last several decades: “Hoop Dreams.” Though two critical darlings were left out of the documentary feature nominations in 1995, “Hoop Dreams” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb,” it was the former that was referred to as “one of the most embarrassing and widely criticized episodes in its (the AMPAS) history” in an EW article that year, and is still considered by many to be the quintessential example of Oscar dropping the ball (had to).

At the time, changes were implemented to (ostensibly speaking) correct the flaw that allowed not one, but two, of the year”s superlatives to slip through the cracks. The adjustments were minimal, however, and brought with them a whole new batch of holes for great films to fall through.

In a recent interview with The Wrap, Michael Moore, who chairs the Academy”s current documentary branch (there was no official branch in place at the time of the “Hoop Dreams” debacle), had the following to say about the current adjustments in the documentary nomination process: “The decades of a few people deciding have come to a complete end. I think we have a better chance of ‘Hoop Dreams’ not happening again.” The film has become shorthand for the Academy”s limitations, particularly in terms of this field. As Steve Pond reminds us, “‘Hoop Dreams” got more perfect scores than any other film, but a small group gave it minimum scores and knocked it to sixth place.”

There are a number of theories concerning the aforementioned small group’s devaluing of the film. Some felt that they were favoring filmmakers they were already familiar with, others that they were simply too lazy to watch the film in its entirety. Whatever the reasons were, the fact remains that both “Hoop Dreams” and the Academy’s failure to honor it remain embedded in our cinematic memory. The film ranks as Roger Ebert”s number one film of the 1990s and enjoys a name recognition and popularity that few documentaries are blessed with.

There is an argument to be made that the Academy Awards are in some ways irrelevant and not necessarily a measure of a film”s merit. True enough, and perspective, in all things, is key. Yet, we must acknowledge that Oscar (for good or for ill) acts as a spotlight, and in this case the glare of the AMPAS omission has brought a film to the attention of new viewers in a way a win actually may not have. And so in some ways, “Hoop Dreams” becomes an example of the paradoxically significant insignificance of the Academy Awards.

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