“How much do you get paid, just to wear these shoes?” David Letterman’s question to Michael Jordan is met with shrieks of delight from his studio audience. The soon-to-be global superstar bashfully responds, “A lot,” grinning from ear to ear. It’s 1986, Ronald Reagan is President and capitalism is alive and well in the United States.
But in inner-city areas across the country decimated by the crack cocaine epidemic, the black community needs a figurehead to rally behind, to give them reason to hope. Will this young Chicago Bulls player be the symbol they need to believe in America? We’ve all seen The Last Dance, so we know what came next. However, there is much more to MJ’s meteoric rise, his signature footwear, Nike as a sportswear powerhouse and Yemi Bamiro’s One Man and His Shoes than initially meet the eye.
Here is a kinetic, clear-sighted documentary that – much like the power, agility and balance of its hero – makes swift and unexpected, but very well controlled, changes of direction. The first quarter is an expository flurry of jazzy, graphic design reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s, magazine covers, MTV-style music videos, news footage and photos. Behind the kaleidoscopic visual aesthetic and dizzying editing, talking heads speak to key issues on and off the court. With black athletes competing in front of predominantly white crowds, basketball, and sport at large, is seen “as a microcosm of society.”
Both the opportunity and responsibility of this new televised era in sports advertising is paramount for changes to be felt at the grass roots level. Nike, trailing to the likes of Reebok, Converse and Adidas, need to find a niche, a way to differentiate themselves. Cue Michael Jordan. Signed by visionary exec Sonny Vacaro, who scouted players before they reached the NBA, a lucrative contract is signed, the first Air Jordans hit the market and we’re off. The NBA banning the black, red and white kicks won them instant street cred, but it was the talents of Spike Lee’s ground-breaking adverts (a total of nine commercials, spanning the 3rd, 4th and 5th iterations of the shoe) that saw Nike enter the stratosphere.
And everyone wanted a piece of the pie, just a sprinkling of that Jordan gold dust. But in a country that sees sneakers as a status symbol to strive towards, what do you do if you don’t have $180 to spend? Cost has far more than monetary value in One Man and His Shoes, and a person’s worth is measured by something other than the new basketball shoes on their feet – however they do make that person a target. In a materialistic consumer society where people view and judge others by their trappings of wealth, success, or style rather than by their actual substance as a human being, killing a young man for his Air Jordans comes all too easily. The American Dream, as one interviewee says, nothing more than a myth.
Bamiro dedicates his film to Joshua D. Woods, who is one such man. One Man and His Shoes ends on a bitter, poignant note with questions left begging for corporate giants uninterested in answering. Nike’s silence on these matters is deafening, and Bamiro’s incredulity upon hearing that Jordan sent the Woods family a pair of Air Jordans to somehow atone for the death or their brother and son is telling. It adds insult to the injury of the film’s final period, and suggests that perhaps the great ball player could, and should, have done a lot more for those who worshipped him most.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63