Multiple documentaries have attempted to tell the story of sneaker culture before, but now a fictional tale is bringing footwear to the silver screen in a major way. Kicks, a coming-of-age feature film with a plot revolving around sneakers, was recently selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. We sent a movie critic who doesn't know anything about sneakers to give an honest take on the film, to see if its appeal reaches outside the sneakerhead community. Here’s his take.
After the world premiere screening of Kicks, a teenage revenge odyssey ignited when a kid gets his new Jordans stolen off his feet, the movie’s cast and director, Justin Tipping, took questions from the audience in a theater in Chelsea. At the back, a woman raised her hand and asked, with a note of real concern, whether such a thing happens any more. The actors nodded in reply. Tipping, on the mic, referenced the 1990 Sports Illustrated “Your Sneakers or Your Life” cover story and assured the room that, yeah, no matter how retro—timeless, almost—his movie feels, it’s very much situated in the Oakland of now.
Tipping lived it. At age 16, the first sneaker purchase he ever made was a set of custom Nike Prestos, $160 of birthday money. “It was the first time you could NIKEiD them online,” the 30-year-old director said in an interview later. “I customized them to be white-on-white-on-white-on-white, with my ‘JTIP’ engraved on them.” They were still spanking new when he was out walking in a not-great area and heard a dude call out, “He’s got the Prestos.” Tipping took an ass-whipping for those shoes, returned home swollen and bloody, and got a warped pep-talk from his brother that stuck with him: “It’s OK. You’re a man now.”
That vision of masculine passage courses through Kicks, which Tipping wrote with Joshua Beirne-Golden. In it, three high-schooler buddies in Richmond, Calif., are sort of feeling out adulthood (money, or lack thereof; girls, or lack thereof) when the hero, a quiet, poorer kid named Brandon (Jahking Guillory), scrimps to upgrade from his ratty used-to-be-white high-tops. Various classic Nikes haunt his world. In dreams he’s running from kids outfitted in Air Jordans. His friend Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace; you knew his dad, Christopher George Latore Wallace, as the Notorious B.I.G.) talks constantly about how much sex he’s having, without ever connecting the boasts to reality; Brandon notes, though, with admiration, that Albert at least rocks a pair of Jordan 6s. His other best buddy, Rico (Christopher Meyer), is nonchalantly good-looking, casually athletic, surrounded by girls, and wears the Jordan 3s. The camera stays low early in the film, giving us a view of how Brandon’s eyeing the world. Poor guy is surrounded by Jumpman silhouettes.
"The camera stays low early in the film, giving us a view of how Brandon’s eyeing the world. Poor guy is surrounded by Jumpman silhouettes."
Brandon’s life changes when he happens by a dude hawking sneaks out of the side of his van. “In this world,” he tells the boy, “your foot game’s everything.” Dude takes him for all the cash he has on him, but Brandon gets to walk off with a pair of red-and-black Air Jordan 1s. His high lasts precisely until he’s shuffling through the wrong cul-de-sac. A pack of hoods, led by a fang-grilled menace named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), kick and beat him until Brandon surrenders his shoes. Having already tossed his old sneaks over a powerline, he’s relegated to some mom-print floral slippers. But he finds his bearing and goes in search of his shoes in some of the uglier corners of Oakland.
The retro choice of sneakers, as well as a script that avoids pretty much any mention or depiction of digital technology, gives the story a sense of having taken place any time since the ’80s. The resulting journey is, in Tipping’s hands, at turns funny, sexy, and hallucinogenic. (Brandon’s spirit animal on this quest is an astronaut only he can see.) It also takes what could be a tragicomedic —premisegoing on a suicide mission to retrieve a pair of shoes from a gun-toting criminal—into a serious matter of justice and masculine passage. The sneakers-or-your-life threat is inverted here, when Brandon, a scrappy kid who got a taste of what it felt like to be admired and strong, decides that his shoes just might be worth his life.
For the original Air Jordans, maybe that’s not wrong? Casting the correct shoe, Tipping said, was its own challenge. “It’s embarrassing how long I thought about what the shoe needed to be,” Tipping said. “Literally going through Complex’s top 100 sneakers of all times and looking at the colors and what year and what make and what model.
“At one point I was thinking of doing the 5s, because they had the Fresh Prince association. I was looking at the Space Jams, because obviously Space Jam, he wears them in the movie, they’ve got the patent leather. Ultimately I landed on the red 1s to keep it timeless, as much as I could. The red 1s, that’s the shoe that’s above reproach. You can never say that that shoe doesn’t matter, ‘cause that was the nexus of everything, the movement. It started everything.”
Once the film catches its momentum, the shoes themselves become secondary. But they make a great currency across worlds that Brandon has to traverse in Kicks. The movie succeeds as a piece of art and as a cracking little coming-of-age adventure, and while it’s unlikely to be a blockbuster, it will wind up a favorite summer movie for almost anyone who might be drawn to it. (Focus World has picked it up, so it may come to a theater near you.) The kids are relatable. The score is moody and dreamy; the soundtrack is a playground of hip-hop. And its world feels authentic in a way that most features don’t, in part because it grew out of a real milieu.
So real, in fact, it could’ve hamstrung the movie. The first location manager ditched, Tipping said, because in the weeks ahead of the shoot, other indie film crews and news crews who visited those neighborhoods were being robbed at gunpoint for their equipment. Plan B was to get a production assistant to drive around knocking on doors. Tipping also tapped an old friend in the Richmond fire department to help scout. The cul-de-sac where Brandon gets robbed is a real-life pinch point that has a rep as “the beat-down zone.”
Tipping said the shoot wound up smooth as you please. It helped that he cast some neighborhood kids; it helped that Biggie’s kid gave the set some cachet; it helped that they had Lil’ Cease from Junior M.A.F.I.A. around giving directions to folks who just wanted to watch. People would ask what the movie was about. “It was like, ‘It’s about a kid who gets jumped for his shoes. Tries to get ‘em back,’” Tipping said. “And everyone had a story of like, ‘Oh, man, a kid got shot right over there.’ Or, ‘Oh, man, I saw a kid get held at gunpoint in front of my house. For Jordans.’”