Kicks really brought back memories for me. Unfortunately, many of those memories were bad. While I'm not sure of the social dynamics in every community in America, the brand and quality of sneakers was a badge of honor and a means of social acceptance in the neighborhood I grew up in.
Materialism in impoverished communities is a peculiar thing. In poor communities, children and adults alike spend incredible amounts of money on items they really can't afford in order to seem less broke than their neighbors.
For as long as I can remember, sneakers have been the status symbol of choice among Black males. From Converse, to Pro Ked, Puma, Adidas and Nike, the pendulum for what is and is not considered cool has swung back and forth from decade to decade.
However, one mainstay of status is Michael Jordan's Air Jordan. Kicks is a film by director Justin Tipping about Brandon, a teenager in the Bay Area who sets off on a mission to recover his precious Air Jordans after he was jumped and robbed for them.
Starring Jahking Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Mahershala Ali, Kofi Siriboe and Christopher Meyer, Kicks has gotten rave reviews at major film festivals and from reviewers. This independent film is an example of how the best cinematic craftsmanship and stories are in the minds of people that haven't even directed their first feature film yet.
Back in 2011, Tipping wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed short Nani - which earned accolades from the Tribeca Film Festival, AFI Fest, Dallas International Film Festival and the USA Film Festival. Kicks shows his tremendous growth as a filmmaker over that span.
I recently spoke with Justin about his film and the reality of materialism and machismo in the hood.
The Shadow League: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Justin Tipping: Something I'll never forget, my teenage years growing up in the Bay Area. I remember this time I got jumped and stomped out by like ten dudes. It was initially because they saw me wearing a pair of Nikes. It's kind of in the aftermath of being beaten and humiliated and your friends are like 'Yo, did you get a hit in?' and my older brother being like 'It's okay, you're a man now.' In retrospect I was like 'Why in the hell is violence synonymous with masculinity?'
That's what we're talking about here. The only emotion you're allowed to feel is anger. Otherwise you're a pussy. It's that kind of mentality. Then, there's the overarching theme of what it means to be a man. Whether you're getting jumped over your phone or your iPod or your gold chain, this kind of stuff happens everyday and it should not be dismissed.
TSL: Though sneakers are involved here, the materialism that elicits covetous stares falls on many things.
JT: It shouldn't be judged from a simple mindset. There were a few reporters that were like 'Yeah, they're fighting over sneakers" and I'm like 'No, there's a bigger social context to what's going on here and a lot of people don't know that I'm trying to help them empathize by using a scripted format to for them tporelate to this situation where they can understand that world.
TSL: But the disdain goes both ways. There are those who are assaulted, or worse, for something that's considered "hot" at the time, but there are others who are bullied and marginalized for not having any of these markers of ghetto affluence.
JT: I think it's the downside of materialism. Sometimes you get popped and bragged on because you don't have cool sneakers, or you get jumped if you do have cool sneakers. I made this and put it on the table to try and figure out how to end this cycle of violence, and it is a very complicated answer.
TSL: Back in the day, Michael Jordan was criticized for not speaking out against violence when people wearing his brand were killed for them. Do you think that's a fair thing to be criticized for?
JT: I think people associate the Jordan brand directly with him. His whole story, his Airness is a iconic. He's made inroads into hip-hop and fashion and somehow his brand has become the face of it. But I don't know what his responsibility should be. It's a weird thing, but I definitely think he's put in a different light because he is the brand.
TSL: After all, people are robbed for just about anything. Yet, I can't recall a time when the manufacturers of said items were taken to task for not speaking out.
JT: I can't say anything about the past, but he just came out and spoke against police brutality and donated money to the NAACP and to the police group helping to mend relationships between the police and the community. I think it's interesting that he has spoken out about that, and not about the violence surrounding the shoes. To me, I think if you can afford them, you deserve to wear Jordans. What you don't deserve is to be beaten or killed over them."
TSL: How much of the protagonist Brandon did you pull from personal experience?
JT: They say a character is a third you, a third someone you know and a third your imagination. The character Brandon was predominantly me and what I went through. I definitely felt like I was a square. I tried to report to the authorities what happened to me, but that never really worked.
I went through a lot of anxiety trying to figure out how not to get beat up. In creating this character, I kind of generalized myself a lot. Rapping in his head was this weird escape for him. Reciting Biggie rhymes was his way of sounding cool and tough, and I could relate to that. I probably definitely did that.
TSL: What were some of the logistical concerns you had to overcome while making this film?
JT: The budget is always a problem, as well as the art of compromise. I just had to learn through the process. Like, 'Okay, we've gotta cut some pages, we have to rewrite this scene, we could shoot full days. So, we actually started rewriting some of the scenes so it could be day. Little things like that. Shooting in Richmond and Oakland, and this being an independent film, we couldn't find a location manager. That was really difficult.
If you look on Google or Facebook you see they charge some really high prices. The other thing is people just didn't want to go into the neighborhoods. Luckily, Xavier, who was one of our producers, doubled as location manager. It was kind of an all-hands on deck type of thing.
Everybody went out scouting locations. It was a very grassroots, community effort. The flip side of that is giving up and going to another city that gives you a tax break or whatever you want. But I wanted to go back to where I grew up and to where I know. I think the movie definitely benefited. I had to have the courage of my convictions.
Kicks opens in theaters nationwide on September 9th.