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It's Gotta Be the Shoes

The BFI London Film Festival

One Man and His Shoes (2020)

Neither Nike nor Michael Jordan participated in the making of this film, which is surprising, until you realize the ending director Yemi Barimo is building toward. The point of this documentary, which examines how Air Jordans became and remain the ne plus ultra of shoes and the backbone of a billion-dollar industry, is to accuse the marketing of these shoes as the cause of death within the Black American community and hold Michael Jordan responsible for at least one murder.

This is interesting, because at no point during this documentary, which analyzes in detail the marketing of the shoes and how that marketing has shifted from 1984 to now, does Mr. Barimo talk about how the shoes are made. Perhaps he thinks elves in Santa’s workshop make them instead of people in sweatshops around the world. Perhaps Mr. Barimo has forgotten that people have value to corporations as workers, not merely consumers. Or perhaps Mr. Barimo was so pleased the family of a young man who was shot dead for a newly-purchased pair of Air Jordans in Houston in 2015 agreed to speak to him on camera that he twisted the angle of his movie.

As it begins, the angle is of an analysis of how the rise of Mr. Jordan and his astonishing athletic abilities led to opportunities for personal branding and corporate endorsements. History starts in the early ’80s, when Mr. Jordan was in college and Ronald Reagan was president. There’s a brief mention of Len Bias, whose death in 1986 shocked the nation, and the late David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner, speaks about how the league changed after that. Nike, which in the mid-’80s was a regional midtier company focused on jogging shoes, needed a brand ambassador to make its products cool. Mr. Barimo got interviews with several former Nike executives who discuss their marketing strategies and why they chose to align with Mr. Jordan. Other talking heads – most notably Jemele Hill – discuss American culture and Black American culture at the time, and the colossal impact that Mr. Jordan had, not only on sport, but also on the wider culture. Detailed analysis of Spike Lee’s “Mars Blackmon” commercials explain how they helped turn the shoes from a sporting item into a beloved lifestyle accessory.

But then the analysis of the importance of the shoes swerves into the direct attack, which is where the movie loses its way. Using footage of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri while asking “where does the responsibility lie” draws a frankly insulting parallel, while the interviews with Joshua Woods’s mother and sister are exploitative and unnecessary. What, exactly, does Mr. Barimo think that Mr. Jordan should do in order to prevent people killing each other over the shoes which bear his name? All the movie does it bleat that he should do more. But you can’t make these kinds of insinuations without getting into specifics on the solutions. And it’s a really telling omission to grieve the people who wear the shoes while erasing the people who make them. The success of Air Jordan’s marketing and the fortunes that have been made as a result are a happy capitalization of Mr. Jordan’s talent, his aura of cool, constant innovation on the part of Nike, and the careful ongoing maintenance of the brand by an army of creative workers with a reputation for excellence. It is certainly not above criticism. But it is also neither all Mr. Jordan’s responsibility nor Mr. Jordan’s fault.


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