Soul in the Hole

Chronicling one long, hot summer of street basketball in Brooklyn and focusing on the relationship between a neighborhood team coach and his star player, "Soul in the Hole" has all the ingredients to muster an audience from the sport's legions of fans. But this well-made docu is up against a major hurdle: the success of "Hoop Dreams."

Chronicling one long, hot summer of street basketball in Brooklyn and focusing on the relationship between a neighborhood team coach and his star player, “Soul in the Hole” has all the ingredients to muster an audience from the sport’s legions of fans. But this well-made docu is up against a major hurdle: the success of “Hoop Dreams.” Destined to serve as a litmus test, the pic’s theatrical chances depend on whether the widely acclaimed earlier feature has exhausted or opened up the market for films on basketball. Either way, its future would appear more certain on video and cable.

The team being tracked here is Kenny’s Kings, from their winning performances in early summer neighborhood contests to the culmination of championship in the Soul in the Hole tournament. Coach Kenny Jones trains the team and finances their activities through his day job in a liquor store. He and his wife, Ronnet, act as surrogate parents to the Kings’ ace point guard, Ed (Booger) Smith, a headstrong, outspoken kid who ran away from his dysfunctional family a few years back.

Documaker Danielle Gardner initially keeps game footage to a minimum, with more attention to activity off the court. Interviews with team members and their families place the game in the context of Brooklyn street life and the local African-American community. The team is seen in action only once the crucial tournament playoffs begin, with the games given progressively more coverage through the semifinals and up to the decisive match.

Disappointment over the Kings’ unexpected failure to win the championship is made more bitter by the ugly threats of a rival team they previously eliminated. Kenny confesses to being worn down and frightened by how seriously the game is now taken. A further blow is the imminent loss of Booger, who has landed a scholarship to a college in Arizona despite his limited reading abilities and rumors of a criminal record.

The filmmakers don’t overplay the tough downside of the Brooklyn environment. Instead, the more sobering realities, like a street brawl between rival teams that underlines the tension and fierce competitiveness behind the sport, are documented matter-of-factly.

A degree of pathos comes from the fate of Booger, related mostly as a postscript.

The film’s minor shortcoming is that, while it presents a well-rounded view of the sport and its milieu, it never gets close enough to its subjects to fully develop the human angle. In this respect, it will suffer from inevitable comparison with the much wider scope of “Hoop Dreams.” Perhaps the real story was in Booger’s rise and fall after leaving Brooklyn, which is sketched only perfunctorily.

Low-budget enterprise is sharply, if a little straightforwardly, shot and edited. Soundtrack mixes rap, match commentary and radio cues to good effect.

Soul in the Hole

Production: A Home Box Office presentation of an Asphalt Films production. Produced by Lilibet Foster. Executive producers, Cis Wilson, Mel Lawrence. Directed by Danielle Gardner. Screenplay, Gardner, Foster.

Crew: Camera (color, 16 mm), Paul Gibson; editor, Melissa Neidich; sound, Steven Robinson; associate producer, Alise Allen. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival, Jan. 30, 1996. Running time: 93 MIN.

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