One Man and His Shoes, 2020.
Directed by Yemi Bamiro.
Starring David Falk, Jemele Hill, Scoop Jackson, David Stern, and Rick Telander.
The story of the phenomenon of Air Jordan sneakers, showing their social, cultural, and racial significance, and how ground-breaking marketing strategies created a multi-billion-dollar business.
Yemi Bamiro’s feature debut chronicles the distinctly American phenomenon of sneaker culture which has soared in popularity over the last three decades, particularly the dogged acquisition and collection of Michael Jordan’s legendary Air Jordan-branded footwear.
The fact that the film opens with shrewdly selected soundbites from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, optimistically promising prosperous years ahead as they do, sets the tone early. For as much as Bamiro’s film enthusiastically props up Jordan’s status as a living legend, it’s also keen to examine what his shoes say about modern America.
While One Man and His Shoes does spend much of its runtime effectively preaching to the converted, the history of Air Jordans as documented is at least snippy enough not to grate, while still proving informative enough for the lay-person. Fitful observations about Nike’s rise as a company follow, and how Jordan’s involvement with their sneaker changed sports marketing forever, yet the film gets decidedly more interesting when it considers what the shoes came to represent in the social sphere.
To legions of inner-city, predominantly black youngsters, Air Jordans were of course aspirational objects, and Nike knew this, aggressively marketing to that demographic. This coincided with the rise of neo-conservatism in ’80s America, providing the perfect storm for Nike to commodify not only the most iconic black sports star of the time but at a wider level black culture, while the governments of the era glad-handed corporations as poor youths were left to rot.
But not all of Bamiro’s observations are strictly miserable, and much of his film is also devoted to painting a portrait of how the shoes themselves shaped pop-culture, with much help from Spike Lee and his innovative array of Air Jordan commercials in which he played his She’s Gotta Have It character Mars Blackmon. It’s sad that “blackness” as a concept had to be normalised at all in society, but the doc successfully argues that, to some broad degree, Jordan and his sneakers absolutely ingratiated the black man with white Americans – to an extent, anyway.
The film would’ve been remiss not to rouse a rabble of shoe collectors and fanatics, or as they’re perhaps better termed – addicts. On one hand some of the collectors clearly harbour a sentimental affection for what the Air Jordans represent in sports, but there are also those who freely admit they’re frittering away money they don’t really have on “collector’s items” they’ll never make tangible use of.
The third act then neatly dovetails into the darker side of the entire enterprise, confirming that Bamiro has far more to offer than a mere doting, dew-eyed, feel-good nostalgia trip for Air Jordans. The back-end of the doc digs deep into the violent robberies and murders which occurred in pursuit of the shoes, and focuses on one especially painful story of loss by interviewing the family of a young man slain for his Jordans.
While on one hand it’s easy to ask, “Who the hell would kill someone for a pair of shoes?”, it’s important not to forget that this behaviour is a symptom of a society which so often tells young black men that their lives are worthless. Combine this with Nike’s top-level marketing and their flagrant participation in artificial scarcity to keep the price of the shoes high, and you have a societal powder keg primed to pop.
As one subject memorably puts it, black America is a society where “status is scarce but heavily coveted,” and despite seeing many young men killed in the name of their footwear, both the company and Michael Jordan have done precious little to address the issue in any meaningful way, as well as opting not to participate in this film.
The downcast final third of the documentary is so fascinating, bleak though it undeniably is, that it’s almost a shame so much of the rest is spent singing Jordan’s praises as a sportsman and cultural icon, especially with so much of that having been covered far more comprehensively by the recent docu-series The Last Dance.
Even so, this is an intriguing if hardly authoritative dive into sneaker culture, vaulting from the history of the Air Jordan brand to the dark side of unregulated, irresponsible corporate greed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.