Entertainment

A New Documentary About Jordans Traces the Complicated Rise of Sneaker Culture

'One Man and His Shoes' taps heavy-hitters in sports, journalism, and streetwear to unpack the legacy of Michael Jordan's ubiquitous brand.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, United States
May 25, 2020, 11:00am
Jordan sneakers hanging from power lines
Photo by Ashwin Rodrigues

In a 1990 article from Sports Illustrated, Rick Telander writes, "Something is very wrong with a society that has created an underclass that is slipping into economic and moral oblivion, an underclass in which pieces of rubber and plastic held together by shoelaces are sometimes worth more than a human life."

Telander is one of several talking heads featured in One Man and His Shoes, a documentary focused on how the Jordan brand became a global obsession since the legendary basketball player's first signature shoe debuted in 1985. The shoes and the Jordan brand have eclipsed the legacy of the player, and for sneakerheads, wearing many of the more valuable signature Jordans on a basketball court today would be a cause for gasps, cringes, and possibly tears. Following the recent conclusion of The Last Dance—the ten-part Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN, which some deemed more hagiography than documentary— One Man and His Shoes is a darker follow-up, focused on his footwear brand and its effect on culture.

The documentary features heavy-hitters in sports, journalism, and streetwear, including commentary from former ESPN writer Jemele Hill, music legend and sneakerhead DJ Clark Kent, and sneaker journalist Russ Bengtson. The film covers a ton of ground, some of which is familiar from The Last Dance, such as Jordan's Nike campaign marking a shift in basketball sneaker marketing and a departure from the team-oriented message of the Converse Weapon, the sneaker of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and many others. As Hill states, Jordan was far from revolutionary in his politics, but he was revolutionary from a marketing perspective, a spokesman who demonstrated to blue-chip companies that a Black face on their products could be a financially viable endeavor. Hill does a great job of couching this statement with the modern example of Nike "siding" with Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign not because it was the ethical decision, but because it was commercially smart and financially viable. (Neither Nike or the Jordan Brand agreed to participate in the documentary.) In the third act of One Man and His Shoes, the tone shifts to focus on the unfortunate byproduct of the Jordan craze, as it became one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time: people committing acts of violence to get their hands on the sneakers. As the Jumpman became a status symbol, the shoes emblazoned with it became must-have items. While executives may have dreamed about creating a product that consumers would kill each other to have, once that was no longer hyperbole, they seemed to shy away from that reality.

The intertwining of popular, expensive, hard-to-find goods and violence is a recurring theme in consumption-oriented capitalist society, with a history that predates and goes far beyond Jordans. There are plenty of other notable examples, some of which require looking back decades—for example, the cult-level ascension of New York City's Lo Lifes, a street crew which took pride in shoplifting Ralph Lauren merchandise, a phenomenon the New York Times called "capitalist sedition." The Lo Life crew started in the mid 80s, and as founder Thirstin Howl the 3rd told VICE , it "started as a gang in Brooklyn and then spread around the world" to become a more positivity-focused subculture, one that still meets for barbecues, and no longer encourages the five-finger discount.

A more contemporary analog, on a smaller scale, can be found in YMBape. The infamously devout Bape fan, dressed head-to-toe in Bape clothing, would troll hypebeasts waiting in line for a Supreme drop, as well as employees within Supreme's stores; he'd knock off people's hats, call himself "The Ape," and yell "Fuck Supreme" inside the brand's flagship SoHo location in attempts to goad Supreme fans and employees into a fight. To see a Black man in New York loudly professing his allegiance to Bape—a brand founded in Japan in 1993 and popularized by Pharrell, The Clipse, and Lil Wayne—shows the power of that brand, for better or worse.

Supreme itself is perhaps the most potent modern example of limited edition goods designed to be collected, no matter the costs, often with chaos erupting on drop days. Long lines of Supreme-clad dudes can be seen queuing up outside stores on the day of a release. Fights outside the various Supreme stores have been documented everywhere from Tokyo's Shibuya to LA's Fairfax Avenue.

These examples serve as reminders that violence in the name of fashion is not a feature of a bygone era, nor is it restricted to one state, country, or continent. In watching One Man and His Shoes, I keep returning to the opening of Telander's article. It's almost like a litmus test: Do you focus on the notion of a sneaker valued more than a human life, or that society created this underclass in the first place?

One Man and His Shoes premieres on VICE TV on May 25.