Seven years in the making, director Yemi Bamiro (Hate Thy Neighbour; Reggae Fever: David Rodigan) makes a statement with One Man and His Shoes: his part-documentary on sneaker culture, part indictment of rampant materialism and consumerism. Superficial comparisons are bound to be drawn to The Last Dance (the documentary series currently streaming on Netflix), but One Man and His Shoes is a deeper, forensic examination of Nike’s Air Jordans as a product and cultural phenomenon.
One Man and His Shoes goes down avenues that other documentaries don’t. It’s not just an exploration of sneaker culture, but arguably of the birth of large-scale marketing and the use of celebrity to solidify a brand. It has access to people that haven’t been on camera before, shining a light on the dark side of consumerism and a product so influential it created a new discourse.
One Man and His Shoes
Director: Yemi Bamiro
Release date: October 13, 2020 (LFF)
The film chronicles the rise of Michael Jordan’s NBA career via the Chicago Bulls, coinciding with the faltering Nike brand in the 1980s against a backdrop of an unsteady economy and a burgeoning crack epidemic in Detroit. The corporation (to say ‘company’ feels like a disservice) initially proposed the idea of attaching this high-performing athlete to their brand, hoping to boost some of its sales and get some good publicity amid the societal upheaval.
The doc then follows the product’s inception, production, and subsequent banning from official games, leading to an exponential impact on sales based on this rebellious turn. It reveals the magic ingredient that was Spike Lee, then young filmmaker behind She’s Gotta Have It – and the chemical formula for a phenomenon was complete.
There are several really high-profile figures in this documentary – the people who made Air Jordans ‘happen.’ Among them are NBA agent David Falk, David J. Stern (NBA commissioner), Sonny Vacarro (Jordan’s scout), and Nike advertising execs Jim Riswold and Julie Strasser. Strasser (author of the unauthorized account of Nike, Swoosh) has never spoken on camera about her experiences with the corporation before, so Bamiro achieves quite a feat with this film.
In a Screen Talk with the BFI, Bamiro explains his passion for sneaker culture, but he’s far from just a fanboy. It’s a refreshing take on the genre. Of course, as expected, he expresses reverence for the culture. Footage shows collectors with upwards of 1,100 pairs of Air Jordans, with insurance exceeding £1 million to keep everything intact. Other collectors from the United States to Japan pile their shoeboxes high, waiting until they can come and spend time with them after work. It’s not just reverence: sneaker culture inspires worshippers.
But at the same time, Bamiro is not afraid to tell the whole story, something he cultivated from his journalistic background. Far from an elevated piece about all the highlights of the product and its dazzling marketing campaign, the final third of the film deals with the ongoing fights, violent assaults, and even deaths that have occurred over new Air Jordans. Most notably, the film puts a spotlight on the murder of Josh D. Woods in Houston, Texas, who was shot in 2012 after acquiring a new pair of Jordans. It’s clear that the filmmakers have chosen not to align themselves with the brand, and indict Jordan and the corporation for choosing not to comment or appear in the project.
The film, then, becomes something much bigger. It shows how marginalized groups, particularly communities of people of color in the US, adopted the Air Jordans as a status symbol and use the product to code their allegiance to a brand. While Nike did something unique by ostensibly uniting a Black player with a predominantly white consumer population, it became clear from the fallout that racism wasn’t going to be fixed overnight by a pair of shoes, no matter how successful.
The film is a celebration of a success story, but it also shows the full effect of advertising that works too well, turning back in on itself like the Midas touch. Consumers are all too easily swayed – faced with insurmountable pressure to define themselves with the latest product: it’s only going to end in tragedy.
It’s ironic that a film about a subject so large could come from a relatively small, British production company. There’s a level of critical distance that allows the filmmakers to consider the effect of the corporation’s actions. It also mustn’t escape notice that the kind of psychology that comes under scrutiny – peer pressure, status symbols, listening to the loudest voice on trends – is exactly what we do when we’re watching a popular film, at a festival or otherwise.
One Man and His Shoes feels self-reflexive in that way, knowing that it’s making viewers think about their consumer habits and motivations. For that, I rate it as one of the most reputable films this festival.