If you watched all 10 episodes of Netflix and ESPN’s recent Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, you might think you’ve got the guy pretty well covered. You’ve savoured every spectacular championship-winning basket, scrutinised every petty rivalry, celebrated every under-sung team-mate, gasped at the majesty of early-Nineties tailoring, and hung on every word from the great man himself, seated and steely-eyed, in various bland, palatial settings. What you probably don’t think you need right now is a little more MJ.
Which makes One Man and His Shoes, a new feature-length documentary by British filmmaker Yemi Bamiro that has its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 13 October and goes on wider release on 23 October, a bona fide bold move. Bolder still, when you realise – as you quickly do – that Jordan himself has gone nowhere near it, and that this is a decidedly smaller operation that will need to be light on its feet (the Spud Webb of basketball docs, perhaps?).
Fleetness of foot is, in fact, the film’s main focus, as it seeks to unpick and understand the phenomenon of the Air Jordan sneaker, both what Jordan did for the shoes, but also what the shoes did for him. There are no Magic Johnsons and Scottie Pippens to hear from, but rather a series of journalists, academics, sneakerheads and former Nike executives, who nonetheless have some fascinating insight into the bold business moves that led Nike, a plucky running company at the time, to sign Jordan while he was still a college player in North Carolina, and create what continues to be the most lucrative sports shoe of all time.
The first hour of the film is, in fact, almost more of a marketing case study – albeit an unusually interesting one – rather than attempting a psychological profile, as did The Last Dance. It highlights figures who received little or no mention in the ESPN/Netflix series, such as Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, who masterminded the Jordan deal, and Spike Lee, whose nine “Mars Blackmon” ads with Jordan gave the Chicago Bulls' 23 a street cachet that, the film argues, he might not otherwise have had. The whole operation helped Nike shift $126m of Air Jordans in the first year, to black inner-city kids and affluent white kids alike; the film estimates that Jordan continues to make around $130m a year from the deal.
After the first hour, however, the film takes a sharp turn (an ankle breaker dribble, if you will). We meet collectors around the world – America, Japan, France – whose love of Jordans has become a very expensive obsession. We see distressing CCTV footage of a teenage boy being beaten in a bathroom stall by three other boys, before they pull his Jordans from his feet and run. We meet Dazie Williams, whose 22-year-old son, Joshua Woods, was shot and killed for his newly purchased Air Jordans in 2012. We learn that for all the genius of the marketing strategy – teasing the shoes on court before releasing them, making sure supply never quite met demand – this was, as Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun Times describes it, “advertising that worked too well”.
If you’d wondered, as I had, about the slight lack of snappiness of the title of the film, this is when “One Man and his Shoes” starts to make sense. The man in question is Jordan, yes, but it’s also every young person (and yes, usually male) for whom the shoes start to embody something more: the promise of Air Jordans as “anti-gravity machines”, not just to lift a player off the surface of the court, but to lift a boy beyond the limits that a prejudicial society has set for him.
“They’re jewels in the eyes of young black kids,” says sports marketing lecturer Professor Antonio Williams. “When you’re wearing these types of jewels on your feet, especially in the neighbourhoods where wealth and status is scarce but heavily coveted, you have things like this happen.” Sports writer Jemele Hill goes further: “Things like Jordans become very big status symbols in communities of colour, and communities that are historically and presently under-served, and the value of life is just not as appreciated when you’re hearing from every corner of society how much you’re not worth.”
In the inquest into Joshua Woods’ death, there were repeated calls for Nike – or even Jordan himself – to make a statement. To say something. (He did, Woods’ sister tells us, send some shoes.) Perhaps it is too much, and unfair, to expect them to accept responsibility for Woods’ death, but could they acknowledge that the company’s business strategy, however innocently embarked upon, had fatal flaws? Jordan has been criticised before for not taking a vocal position on issues, particularly surrounding race, and it was a long shot for the film-makers to expect him to speak up this time. Nevertheless, as Jordan would be the first to tell you, the shot is always worth taking.
More info at Onemanandhisshoes.com. One Man and His Shoes premieres at the London Film Festival on 13 October.
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