Two people were shot at a Foot Locker in Minnesota in March, after a fight broke out over a pair of Nike Air Jordan 2 Retro "Wing It" sneakers. In February, a man was stabbed three times in the Bronx for refusing to give up his sneakers in an attempted robbery. Last December, four high school students in Georgia were suspended, and one charged with a felony, following a bathroom brawl that broke out when one teen was wrongfully accused of stealing another's sneakers. According to Sneakerheadz, a 2015 documentary about sneaker collecting, an estimated 1,200 people are killed over sneakers every year.
Media coverage rarely gives a glimpse of this dark side of sneaker culture beyond the statistics, dehumanizing both the victims of this violence and the culprits. But Justin Tipping’s first feature film, Kicks, digs deeper. Like John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, and more recently, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope, Kicks is a coming-of-age story centered around a group of black kids growing up in an inner-city neighborhood of California. Kicks, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, explores the flawed concept of masculinity through the eyes of 15-year-old Brandon (JahKing Guillory) and a pair of vintage black-and-red Air Jordans against the backdrop of Bay Area sunshine.
I spoke to Tipping over the phone about his directorial debut last month. "It always infuriated me when I would see news journalists at the scene of the mall where fights were breaking out over Jordans, because it felt like you could just hear the condescension in their tone: 'Yeah, just over a pair of sneakers,' and they would move on and give it a 20-second sound snippet that is in no way looking at why this happens," Tipping told me over the phone. "The whole point is that they are not just sneakers. They are signifiers for much more than that, and they become status symbols. …our society created this problem to begin with."
Kicks protagonist Brandon—who has massive curly hair, an innocent face and a scrawny frame—wears a pair of run-down Air Force Ones. He is ignored by the girls at his high school and constantly picked on, always sprinting home to avoid a beating from the neighborhood boys. Meanwhile, his two best friends, Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and Rico (Christopher Meyer), wear the freshest sneakers and have no problem on the basketball court or in the lady department (or so they brag). Fed up with feeling like a punchline, Brandon gets his hands on his own pair of black-and-red Air Jordan 1s, using money saved from his past birthdays and from selling candy. He just wants to fit in, and for a moment, in his Jordans, the Bay Area is his oyster—he walks with swagger, girls look his way, and he no longer feels like an outsider. As far as he's concerned, he's a man now.
To understand why a pair of sneakers would give a young black boy such a profound sense of self-worth, you have consider what the very existence of Michael Jordan means to the black community. Michael Eric Dyson put it best in a 1993 essay published in Cultural Studies, describing Jordan as an ideal figure in American society: "A black man of extraordinary genius on the court and before the cameras, who by virtue of his magical skills and godlike talents symbolizes the meaning of human possibility, while refusing to root it in the specific forms of culture and race in which it must inevitably make sense or fade to ultimate irrelevance."
Tipping agrees. "Sneakers have become this [representation of] expression meets hip-hop meets culture meets a story of hope. The Jordan brand is beyond his name. It’s like this kid who got cut from his team is now a silhouette icon," he said.
The intersection between sneaker culture and hip-hop is also key—artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, and Nas are not only heard in the background of Kicks, but Brandon recites rap lyrics throughout the movie. Run DMC pioneered the hip-hop tradition of rapping about sneakers—the group didn't just wear Adidas Superstars on stage, but paid homage to the shoes in 1986's "My Adidas." Adidas took notice of the marketing opportunity and Run-DMC landed an endorsement deal, paving the way for partnerships like Kanye West and Nike, Kanye West and Adidas, Missy Elliot and Adidas, Pharrell and Adidas, Nas and FILA, and Rakim and Reebok. The term "fresh," which has its origins in hip-hop, is used to describe an outfit that's impeccable all the way down to the sneakers, especially the sneakers.
For a young black kid to have Jordans in his possession is to own a piece of that legacy, of a lifestyle that might otherwise be inaccessible to him. The sneakers are proof that you are in fact somebody—somebody fresh.
A defining moment in Tipping's own childhood helped inspire Kicks. The biracial director was 16 years old when he was jumped and beat up for his white Nike Prestos on his way to the movies in his native Oakland. He remembers coming home with busted lips and a black eye, only for his older brother to tell him that he was now a "man" after going through what seemed like a rite of passage at the time. Later, Tipping would come to question the "militaristic view" that experiencing violence was tantamount with manhood.
"I do think, in a lot of these communities, no matter how much you try to avoid violence, somehow it ends up finding you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with standing up for yourself, but we don’t need to die and get in turf wars over [sneakers]," Tipping said.
In Kicks, it's not even a full day before Brandon gets his newfound swagger jacked. Local troublemaker Flaco (Kofi Soriboe) jumps Brandon for his shiny new Air Jordans, later giving the sneakers to his preteen son. Unlike Tipping, Brandon, after a tough-love push from his previously incarcerated uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali) and teasing from Rico and Albert, embarks on an vain quest to reclaim his prized sneakers. Brandon thinks he's going down the path of manhood, but this masochistic struggle for self-respect leads him and his friends into a cycle of violence they can't escape.
"That’s the dark side of the consumer and individualistic society, where the object becomes so fetishized that [the motivation for buying it] becomes: 'I must have this just because it’s that and not because I like the color and the texture.' It’s like people who just want the Louis Vuitton [for the] logo," Tipping said. "Do you actually need that? Do you appreciate that? Or are you just projecting a status symbol because society tells you that you’ll get respect? …[And] was it really worth jumping a kid or killing a kid over?"
Kicks leaves you with many of the same questions that a news story on a sneaker-related crime would, but with a far better understanding of the role that "just" a pair of sneakers can play in grappling with masculinity and senseless violence.
Kicks will debut in select theaters this summer.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.