Yemi Bamiro's documentary is a kinetic, well-constructed and insightful look at the marketing genius of Nike to find a young Michael Jordan and turn him into a global brand. Rather than marketing an entire basketball team with a sneaker aimed at active athletes, Nike marketed an individual and aimed at the wider urban i.e. black youth market. They were targeting kids with little money and no real stake in the American Dream with a brand that personified achievement and excellence and, indeed, rebellion. For sure, it was useful that the NBA banned its first shoe. But Nike marketing execs had the balls to lean into that and get Spike Lee to direct some cutting edge black and white ads that leant into the Air Jordan's coolness. Is it the shoe? Or is it Mike? And thanks to Spike Lee, being a sneakerhead became a thing.
On the way, the documentary shows how the Air Jordan became one of the most must-have products of its time, with queues for the new editions reminiscent of how Apple markets its iPhones today. In a sense, Nike set the template for brilliantly successful marketing campaigns. The darker side is that poor urban kids were robbing each other for their trainers, and apparently this trend of violence continues today.
I was with the documentary right up until the final ten minutes. I loved the access to the key Nike executives at the time, and I loved Jemele Hill* - a phenomenal sports writer and cultural commentator - as a talking head. But I missed some things. It would have been cool to get a Converse marketing exec on to explain how they felt seeing Nike just blow them out of the water in the early 90s. And it would've been cool to get Michael Jordan himself. Of course that wasn't going to happen because the final ten minutes criticises Jordan heavily for not being a political activist or at the very least for not publicly commenting on the violence committed to steal Air Jordans.
Now this took me back to my viewing of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI... earlier in the festival where Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke powerfully argues that if the aim of the civil rights movement is respect and economic freedom, well Michael Jordan leads by example. He doesn't have to do anything else. On Nike, I just feel that you can't criticise a company for doing what it SHOULD do - maximise sales. Where the criticism lies, for me, is the wider societal systemic issues and personal family structure issues that lead to young kids having a) access to guns b) such little self esteem that they think sneakers are worth killing for and c) such a lack of family values being instilled to know you don't rob and kill someone for sneakers. Indeed, Jemele Hill speaks to the second point very effectively indeed.
ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES has a running time of 83 minutes. The film was released on TV in the USA in June. It is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival 2020.
* Fans of The Wire should check out her podcast that deep dives into that show episode by episode alongside Van Lathan - The Wire - Way Down In The Hole.