▶︎ One Man and His Shoes is in UK cinemas and available to download on iTunes.
The shoes. You’d think they were handed down from Asgard, in an earth-fissioning lighting bolt, by Odin himself. A Van Winkle-ish sleeper, on waking and taking stock of the last half century of American pop culture, would have no shortage of warped conundrums and mass-hysteria nonsense to scratch their head over, certainly – and not just from the tech-poisoned distortions of the last 15 years or so, which we all understand to be a new and inescapable kind of crazy.
No, the internet didn’t invent the madness of crowds, the vulnerability of what Walter Lippmann a century ago called “the bewildered herd”, be it applied to politics or spiritualism or, as in this new film about the Air Jordan sneaker, consumerism. There’s always been a Lippmann acolyte lurking to fleece us, and the more bewildered we are at any given time, the more we sacrifice our sanity, dignity and health for what we’re told we want.
The saga of Air Jordans is a microscope-slide sample of this bigger dynamic, and one that comes with its fair share of ironies. That is, if you’re a basketball fan and have kept abreast of the changes in the game and its public profile since the 80s – if you haven’t, then Yemi Bamiro’s documentary, produced by Vice, may indeed strike you as a portrait of a national brainpan lost to psychosis.
Assembled with the now customary advert-styled array of non-stop digital graphics, the movie begins in full marketing mode, relaying via interviews with agents, Nike execs, ad men, ‘sneaker writers’ and sports reporters the apparently epochal change in pro basketball, and therefore to America at large, brought by Michael Jordan, whose on-court achievements were merely the bedrock upon which was built an edifice of promotional skulduggery and endorsement branding that escalated the NBA’s bottom line across the board.
The Michael-stamped Nike sneakers came next, along with their famous Spike Lee TV ads, and you don’t have to hate basketball to chafe at the seething pride and astonishment the interviewees (who do not include Jordan) display at the shoe’s freakish popularity, and how well the Nike sales team engineered a commercial craze. It’s an all too common tale of public suckering and image worship, told with a guileless smirk.
Then, having lured us into complacency about glorious salesmanship, the film goes thankfully dark, diving into the phenomenon of Air Jordan murders, which began with the shoe’s debut in the mid-80s and have persisted at least until 2019. One brand of lunacy gets swapped for a worse one. Bamiro goes to the police footage, and interviews young Black victims’ families, but he never returns to the millionaire white dudes (nor Lee) responsible for the product and its dissemination, to ask them, “Well?” By its turnabout structure, the doc itself poses the question, but doesn’t insist anyone answer.