LFF 2020: One Man and His Shoes Review
There has already been one Michael Jordan documentary this year, ESPN’s slick, glossy affair offering the definitive take on Jordan’s career (although his own involvement muddied the waters) and garnering plenty of attention. One unlikely to turn as many heads will be British director Yemi Bamiro’s One Man and His Shoes, which isn’t as concerned with Jordan’s achievements on the basketball court, but moreso about the cultural impact of his multi-billion dollar-making Jordan shoe brand.
Where The Last Dance was set up to laud the genius of Jordan as a basketball player, Bamiro’s documentary is also a largely positive affair while also questioning some of the darker connotations attached to such a successful status symbol. Not that enough time isn’t devoted to praising how Jordan was able to surpass the commercial limitations placed on other legendary Black sport stars like Jackie Robinson or OJ Simpson to break through into white America. Teaming up with Nike, he was elevated beyond superhero status into a brand of his own, simultaneously transforming his and Nike’s trajectory as a company.
It was ex-Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro who saw the early potential of Jordan, pushing the company to sign him up even before he hit the big time. Jordan’s ex-agent David Falk talks about the groundbreaking nature of the deal, in a time when the likes of Converse ran a closed shop handing out free shoes to teams but very little money, while enjoying plenty of free advertising. The likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would struggle to top £100k per year, a figure blown out of the water by Jordan’s deal, which included a cut of every Jordan shoe sold. Nike’s initial expectations were to sell 3 million units within the first three years – a number quickly revised within 12 months after 125 million flew off the shelves.
Of course, it also helped that when Jordan wore the first incarnation of the shoe it was banned by the NBA because they broke the no-colour rule. The ban only meant kids were desperate to get their hands on a pair, creating the sort of hype money can’t buy. Nike have long mastered the art of marketing and the likes of Bobbito, DJ Clark Kent and Scoop Jackson cite the nine black-and-white TV ads directed by and starring the then up-and-coming Spike Lee as the real turning point. Lee featured as the Jordan-obsessed Mars Blackmon character from his She’s Gotta Have It debut, his signature style adding instant street cred. “Is it the shoes?” asked the tagline, planting the seed that even if you can’t be like Mike (that was Gatorade), you could own a little bit of his magic.
The Jordan boom helped kick-start sneaker culture, creating an obsession with sports footwear and the need to always have the freshest kicks on your feet. Bamiro travels to meet avid Jordan shoe fanatics in Paris, Tokyo and Detroit, the latter boasting of owning the largest collection of Jordans in America with 1,175 pairs. It’s one of many layers packed into a largely well-told documentary, Bamiro constructing a compelling narrative not only about the brand’s popularity, but its importance to Black people's progression in America, Professor Antonio Williams calling it the first Black self-titled brand (along the lines of Ford, Kellogg’s, Hershey’s etc.) to reach such heights.
Where One Man and His Shoes loses itself is in the final third, Bamiro visiting the family of 22-year-old Joshua Woods, who was robbed and killed for his Jordans. It’s one of many similar stories stretching back over 30 years, with Nike rightfully criticised for creating a feverish demand they have little intention of meeting in order to uphold its desirability. While every point made about the darker side of America’s consumer capitalism is valid, Bamiro corners himself with a sombre tone that feels out of kilter with everything that has come before, playing like an adjoining chapter or short deserving of something more. But in only 90 minutes Bamiro makes his points with real clarity, pinpointing the good and bad of Jordan's sneaker empire.
One Man and His Shoes plays at the London Film Festival and is scheduled to arrive in UK cinemas from October 23.
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