Exploring the legacy of Air Jordans with 'One Man and His Shoes'

23 Oct 2020 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

7 mins
One Man and His Shoes
One Man and His Shoes

In the summer of 1984, the Chicago Bulls basketball team drafted Michael Jordan. Later that year, Nike bet the house on him by releasing the Air Jordan, an unprecedented move which saw trendy sneakers being marketed around one man who played a team sport. This documentary explores the social, cultural and economic impact of this moment and its enduring legacy on sports, business and celebrity culture.

Before the arrival of Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls were not in a good way. They had never reached the NBA Finals, let alone won them, and did not appear to be in contention to do so. But not only did they draft someone who they could build their team around on the court, leading to unprecedented levels of sucess, it also so happened that Nike were looking for an opportunity - a gap in the market - and decided that the record-breaking new talent was their guy. As Jordan's influence, talent and success grew on the court, so too did his impact off it: Nike had hit the jackpot.

Given that they weren't the major player within the industry that we know them as today, Nike sought to do something different in order to make a splash with the product, essentially deciding to adopt a tennis player approach to a basketball star; in other words, to market him as an individual with his own brand of merchandise despite the fact that he was operating within a team sport, something hitherto not done. They would also elevate the hype around the product through months of build-up - another move that was not in line with tradition - so that by the time the Air Jordan was released, the demand was ridiculously high. Even then, stock was limited, allowing this luxury, must-have product to remain in demand and feel exclusive.

What Nike couldn't have foreseen was that Air Jordans would be immediately banned on court by the NBA. Every time Michael Jordan wore them, he received a $5000 fine (paid for by Nike) because of a rule which stated that footwear had to match both the team uniform and the shoes of their teammates. This couldn't have worked out better for Nike, who immediately recognised the opportunity this presented and sought to capitalise on it in their advertising campaign. Jordan continued to wear the ‘banned' shoes, contributing to a sense of daring, while Nike ensured that the sneakers felt exclusive, a must-have and rebellious. All this contributed to the staggering instant success of the product: Nike were aiming to generate $3m in sales across the first three years, and instead they had made $126m worth of sales in the first year alone.

The sneakers were out there and became an enormous cultural phenomenon, including being cited in the movies. Up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Lee would feature them prominently in a key scene in his second feature film, 1986's She's Gotta Have It, in which he would also play the character of Mars Blackmon, an individual who refuses to take off his Jordans no matter what. Spike Lee would then be recruited to work on the commercials for Air Jordans with Nike, bringing his creative flair to the campaign as director which would lead to a series of memorable ads in which he would revive his character of Mars, interacting with Jordan himself. Lee would also go on to include notable scenes about Air Jordans in his later films such as his breakthrough title Do the Right Thing and the basketball-themed He Got Game.

Though neither Michael Jordan nor his sneakers were solely responsible for a shift in the mood of young Black Americans throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were certainly representative of it. He, Spike Lee and the shoes all played a part in this significant transformation in the feeling of much of the country during this relatively short period. It saw a shift from the Reagan-era characterised by poverty, crime and the failed War on Drugs to a cultural boom of Black culture in the early 1990s with Lee and Jordan accompanied by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Mike Tyson, Chris Rock, OJ Simpson and Will Smith - as The Fresh Prince - each contributing towards this via their success and popularity across film, music, comedy and sport.

One of the questions the documentary raises, however, is whether Michael Jordan had a responsibility to do more with his profile in advancing the cause of Black people. Some say that he should have spoken out more on political issues, while others argue that his journey in and of itself was one which provided hope, joy and broke down barriers. Either way, the Jordan brand and Nike both come in for criticism within the film, as the consumerist, capitalist craze around the sneakers would result in addiction, theft and even a number of murders over the shoes (there have been regular killings since 1989, with the most recent recorded incident in September 2019 when a 14 year-old boy was shot in Denver, Colorado simply because of the coveted shoes).

Despite this being an American-centric story, One Man and His Shoes is the first feature film from Black British director Yemi Bamiro who describes himself as a "Chicago Bulls fan in the 90s and by proxy a Michael Jordan fan too". The documentary tackles all these fascinating issues with flair, using a mixture of animated graphics and archive material to tell the story with engaging visuals in a similar style to White Riot, another of the year's best documentaries. The fast pace and accessible storytelling lends itself to young audiences, whether or not they are familiar with the subject matter, using a range of diverse contributors - including Jordan's former agent, the NBA commissioner at the time, sports journalists and an ex-Nike designer - to provide further context.

For those interested in similar titles, Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona also features a titan of sports put under the microscope within a film that also touches upon a number of off-the-field issues, such as poverty, addiction, the Mafia, and the media. For fans of basketball and those interested in Black experiences during this period, Hoop Dreams is a seminal documentary filmed in the early 1990s about two Black American high-school students who dream of making it within the sport. For further suggestions around the topic, check out our Sport on Film list.

With conversations around Black culture and corporate responsibility as prominent as ever, this timely documentary is an insightful exploration of these issues via a landmark moment across the industries of fashion, sports and marketing, and of how one man's sneakers - for better or worse - really did change the world.

One Man and His Shoes is released in UK cinemas on Friday 23 October.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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