BFI LFF 2020: One Man and his Shoes (2020)

One Man and his Shoes, the debut documentary feature by Yemi Bamiro, is a fascinating dissection of a cultural phenomenon – trainers.

Do the Wrong Thing

by Alexa Dalby

One Man and his Shoes

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 1984, the year immortalised in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, trainers also became a fashion icon. One Man and his Shoes, the debut documentary feature by Yemi Bamiro, is a fascinating dissection of a cultural phenomenon, American’s toxic consumerism, the commodification of black culture and the manipulation of young, particularly African American, males.

Nike was then a small footwear company, but its revolutionary new basketball shoe and its inspired advertising campaign – only nine commercials, but shot by the-then emerging director of cool Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee – didn’t just capture the zeitgeist, it changed it. Nike was catapulted into the sports footwear big league and became one of the most profitable companies in the world.

That and, of course, the campaign’s figurehead, basketball superstar Michael Jordan, handsome, athletic and famous for his ‘jump’. He wore the new Air Jordan to games – black and red (the devil’s colours in Jordan’s mind) – instead of the compulsory white, so of course the shoe was banned. This was a gift. It associated the Air Jordan brand with anti-establishment – the ‘hood – and made sales rocket even more, despite the eye-watering price of $180 and their target market of 16-year-old boys who couldn’t afford them. Canny sales strategy limited supplies to incite demand. At its height, people even killed to get hold of them. The advertising campaign was too successful.

The documentary charts the popularity of the the Air Jordan and of Jordan himself in the ‘80s and 90’s, the decades of hip hop and mega-rich sports stars. To young African American males struggling in an unequal society, owning an Air Jordan, with all the associations it had now acquired, symbolised to them the status they lacked. It also made some people very, very rich.

One Man and his Shoes is a sadly entertaining, thought-provoking, wide-ranging documentary that considers the unanticipated consequences that designing and marketing a new basketball shoe had for ordinary individuals (not just ‘sneakerheads’) and in normalising the future manipulation of youth culture.

One Man and his Shoes screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 23 October 2020 in the UK.

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