There will be numerous conversations as to whether Yemi Bamiro’s investigative look into the legacy of the Air Jordan sneakers serves as the perfect companion piece to this year’s outstanding documentary The Last Dance. The Netflix series was an examination into Michael Jordan – the man, the myth, the legend. It was ruthless and brilliantly truthful but nevertheless, an absorbing insight on the ‘winning mentality’ that changed the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls, from a team that skirted on the fringes of the NBA, into six-time champions. With that conscious thought in mind, Bamiro’s doc is a different slice of that same pie. It’s not fascinated with Jordan’s GOAT status. By merit of its own accord, it is a dark encapsulation to the culture that followed him.
Bamiro’s documentary is a damning condemnation on consumer culture and its lack of social accountability. Through archival footage, talking heads and testimonies, it charts how Michael Jordan’s signature sneaker became the most sort after footwear and the human tragedy that followed in its wake.
One Man and His Shoes lulls its audience into a false sense of security. The first half vibes in the nostalgia, building a connecting picture between Jordan’s meteoric rise, and how Nike (a company in the shadows of its rivals) was able to profit off that success into a multi-billion-dollar business. For NBA fans who grew up around the phenomenon, there are gleeful opportunities to reminisce, from the inclusion of Scoop Jackson (who used to present Channel 4’s NBA coverage), right down to Spike Lee’s playful adverts based on his character Mars from She’s Gotta Have It. And that euphoria is only enriched by how the documentary is brilliantly stylised, with concise points of views and using William Newell’s animation as creative breaks to maintain its engaging flow.
But underpinning much of its discourse is the psychology of brand association and consumerism of the Air Jordans. Bamiro looks at the sneaker as a character, an unstoppable force where its contributors profess Spike Lee as the ‘Godfather of sneaker culture’, to the millions of Air Jordan enthusiasts who have been collecting the trainers since its inception. In one example, the insurance policy for one collection is over one million dollars! But it’s the ease at how it navigates those arguments. It builds an articulate social context that confronts America’s past, tackling the rise of conservatism in the 80s and the degradation of Black communities through drugs, poverty, societal neglect, and extreme government policies.
When Jemele Hill (another win for this documentary) talks about the impact of basketball star Len Bias’s death (at the age of 22), it is a resonating example that depicts the tragic struggles at the time when Black culture and dominance of the NBA was charting into the mainstream. They’re presented as catalysts in a cultural shift where communities were looking for an escape and reasons to claim onto a ‘status symbol’, versus the corporate interest of Nike looking for fertile ground to capitalise off Black pain for aggressive marketing campaigns and hyped-up exclusivity as its weapon.
What unfolds next is a significant shift in perspective, a whiplash sensation that’s akin to Netflix’s documentary Icarus. And it’s at this point where the nostalgia, the innocence and mood is exchanged for heartbreak. That ‘mic drop’ dose in harsh reality is delivered so unapologetically, it makes you think twice about brand loyalty, and the psychological obsession and damages it inflicts upon people.
Jordan himself is not immune from the discussion, where his previous stance (which has since changed since the death of George Floyd) was to be silent on Black issues. One Man and His Shoes understands the dual and complex relationship of being a ‘symbol of cool’ and commercial commitments. But even in one, mortifying moment, his gesture in comforting a family’s loss is a tone-deaf response that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It’s a stark reminder at the lack of compassion and empathy when human life is treated as the footnote for corporate wealth and power.
But in establishing the complicit nature (something that Bamiro expertly delivers with detail, dynamism, and confidence), the documentary knows where the heart of blame lies. Bamiro is not preaching anything new, but for a documentary to actively question the senseless, and self-destructive chaos and build that into a dramatic journey, One Man and His Shoes stands tall for its hard-hitting and compelling impact. And to this day, the acknowledgement and responsibility still goes unaccounted for.
Once again – as relevant these films have become in 2020 – Bamiro shows another irrefutable example at how Black lives propagate corporate interests, in a film which is 100% worth seeking out.