As The Last Dance thrust Michael Jordan’s legacy back into the spotlight earlier this year, it was only a matter of time before his Air Jordan brand got their own film. The various designs and redesigns of this footwear have been so culturally impactful, in fact, it’s a wonder such a thing has not already been made. Even if many know the story, however, young filmmaker Yemi Bamiro has crafted a fascinatingly unpredictable documentary out of these iconic products, one that cleverly misdirects its audience at key junctures. It’s one of the best hoodwinks one could pull off with this sort of material, and an invigorating use of the documentary format.
The breezy but thorough approach starts straightforwardly, and continues that way for more than half the runtime. Luckily, the basic facts of Michael Jordan’s story and his unprecedented impact on the world of marketing are interesting enough to carry the film for these sections. Informative interviews with various cultural commentators and individuals close to the events paint a vivid picture of 1980s basketball culture, including the tensions between Nike, Adidas, and Converse that resulted in Nike’s mad idea to focus on college-age athletes. It’s a romantic notion to think of an era when college sports were less of a soul-crushing, money-making machine and more about college athletes playing sports; Bamiro commendably lets the film relish in these vintage aesthetics and value systems. One Man and His Shoes is frequently hilarious, for that matter, as Bamiro and editor Michael Marden cheekily intersperse retro advertisements and news clippings that make you wonder how even the most corporate of boardrooms could have come up with such tone-deaf campaigns. Lots of product-oriented raps, all so clearly terrible they’ll elicit a laugh from just about anyone.
As the story moves into the ingenuity of the Jordan era, things get more serious. The film plays dangerously with its tone, listing uncomfortably close to worshipping the bottom line here and there. Without question, what Jordan and his representatives pulled off in marketing him like an individual rather than a team player was impressive (one fascinating moment highlights the differences between how basketball teams were generally presented to viewers versus tennis players, leading Jordan’s manager to insist Nike market him like a tennis pro), but certain sequences suggest we should applaud Jordan simply for making billions rather than millions. It’s a hard sell, even as some charming clips of Jordan convince the viewer that his jaw-dropping athletic ability genuinely merited him superstar status. Other hilarious sequences simply edit together his run-of-the-mill game performances, which play like a highlight reel as he literally runs circles around everyone else.
But One Man and His Shoes takes care to keep Jordan’s biography at a distance, in favor of highlighting how companies and capitalist culture devoured the novel idea of the “signature shoe” birthed by his career. Nike enlisted ad companies to figure out how to maximize profits off this concept, which resulted in Spike Lee being hired to make nine now-legendary commercials, starring the character he originated in She’s Gotta Have It, Mars Blackmon, who values his Jordans as reverently as his sex life. It’s a winking but discomfiting section, in which people like Jemele Hill attribute Lee with essentially creating sneaker culture as we know it, but the edit palpably infers that this sneaker culture was born just as much from Lee’s ingenuity as it was from carnivorous capitalist exploitation of young Black men.
Here is where One Man and His Shoes becomes a treasure of a documentary. Almost seamlessly, Bamiro transitions past the tale of this marketing phenomenon, fast-forwarding proceedings to confront its most tragic consequences. As one commentator notes, this is really the story of “advertising that worked too well,” as nearly every year since 1989, people have been killed in the street over pairs of Air Jordans. This fact lands like a thunderclap after 50 minutes of hagiography and seeming celebration of Jordan and Nike’s mammoth accomplishment, and effectively forces all involved to admit some degree of responsibility. For the same reasons this footwear empire was able to rise to unprecedented heights, society has become so unfathomably materialist that many horrific and preventable crimes have been committed so people can count themselves a part of this culture. The approach works better than it may have if the documentary was fashioned from the outset as a takedown; because Bamiro transfixes the viewer with this gargantuan story first, the crash back to reality not only implicates the audience for not seeing it coming, but more importantly highlights how despicable it is that those actually responsible have refused to take the matter seriously.
The film addresses many real-life tragedies, but focuses mainly on the murder of Joshua D. Woods, who was shot in Houston in 2012 while driving home from purchasing the newest Air Jordans release. The Woods family tells their story and offers insight on the senseless, confounding misery this marketing machine has caused. As one woman eloquently ponders: “how do you explain to your children that someone was killed over shoes?” (During these interviews, Bamiro speaks up for the only time in the film, in response to the Woods family noting that upon the news of Joshua’s death, Jordan sent them a pair of the shoes. Even the filmmaker cannot contain his reaction at that). Experts estimate that thousands of people have been murdered for reasons explicitly connected to stealing Jordans, and while many of the families interviewed are clear that they would not go so far as to blame Nike or Jordan himself for the deaths of their loved ones, they point out how little either of these entities have done to change anything in the wake of so much needless, preventable violence.
Bamiro presents these questions with magnificent clarity. While One Man and His Shoes was initially conceived as a document of Jordan collectors – and a short sequence does explore a handful of these remarkably obsessed individuals – Bamiro’s film is all the more commendable for reaching into broader, more difficult, more controversial topics instead. It is an excellent use of the documentary, and an illuminating, refreshing piece of nonfiction filmmaking. Let’s hope One Man and His Shoes can reach a fraction of the consumers the eponymous behemoth has transfixed himself.