Tuesday 13 October 2020

ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES - London Film Festival 2020

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, One Man and His Shoes charts the rise of the Nike Air Jordan brand and the impact it has had on culture, leading to a demand that is so high, some people are willing to kill to get their hands on a pair.

Starting all the way back in the mid 1980s, when Michael Jordan was a fresh faced 6'6 college basketball player, Bamiro's documentary goes over some ground already covered in the Jordan sanctioned Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, but after throwing its net wide to discuss the plight of a black community ravaged by crack cocaine and mandatory minimum sentences, One Man and His Shoes zeroes in on Jordan as an up-and-coming player chosen as the face of a new kind of sports shoe. Rather than being a standard sneaker that might be worn by other basketball stars (as was the case with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), this would be a shoe bearing the name Jordan, designed for him and the legions of basketball fans who wanted to emulate his sporting prowess and own this coolest of status symbols.

In the first half of the film there's a great deal of effort put into explaining the perfect storm that lead to Jordan being picked as the player to wear the controversial first run of Air Jordans (they were banned by the NBA, not because they gave MJ an edge but because they weren't the regulation white colour, but that didn't stop fans from believing the former), and a ton of talking heads from sports writers, sneaker writers and marketing lecturers offer their take on why it was such a runaway success story, with sales expectations of $3 million after 3 years soon eclipsed when they made $126 million in their first year.

Much like the rise of Michael Jordan himself, it's a wild story that is easy to get swept up in, although the filmmakers know that a desire to dig into the varying designs and appeal of each model of Air Jordans is limited, but not completely absent, paying a visit to one collector who has 1175 pairs of shoes and other Jordan memorabilia worth over a million dollars in his house. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't share too much about where he lives. Instead this film shifts focus onto the darker side of the fervent fandom that goes with the launch of a new design, as huge queues wrap around department stores and purchase limits are put in place that mean not everyone who wants to buy a pair of new Jordans (and who can afford the hefty price tag) gets them, and so a resale market has emerged that sees the shoes go for thousands of dollars online, and worse, people assaulted and killed for their shoes.

It's of no surprise given the dark turn this film takes that there's no involvement from Michael Jordan, Nike, or key figures like Spike Lee - who hot off breaking out with his debut She's Gotta Have It, directed and co-starred in a series of commercials with Jordan that helped shape the brand's public image - instead putting grieving families as the focus of the final section of the film as shocking stories and footage of beatings and murders takes the place of on-court triumphs and the history of basketball endorsement deals. It's a bold swing that might shock audiences looking for a light-hearted documentary about sports shoes, but this film is more concerned with looking at the lasting effect this cultural behemoth has had on society, asking big questions about how much a billion dollar brand like Air Jordan and Nike should be held accountable for the criminal actions of consumers.

Like any great sports movie, One Man and His Shoes is not about sports, but it's unexpected how little it is about shoes too. Audiences expecting something light on its toes may be taken aback by the heavy pivot it takes, but it's a better film for facing up to the dark side of fandom.



One Man and His Shoes is available now on the BFI Player

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