It’s gotta be the shoes.
With that simple phrase, it’s likely that you’ve already conjured up one of several images in your mind. Maybe it’s the famous Nike swoosh. Maybe it’s Spike Lee’s commercials from the ‘80s. Or maybe it’s just Michael Jordan himself. Those simple ads (or short films) came out almost forty years ago. And yet, Michael Jordan and Nike became—and continue to be—a powerhouse combination. Nike, then, became one of the most recognizable brands in sports history.
Directed by Yemi Bamiro, the new doc One Man and His Shoes chronicles the skyrocketing rise of Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers. Beginning in the mid-1980s, One Man shows how Nike’s ground-breaking marketing strategies created a multi-billion-business. Nike’s iconic promotion offered a role model to African-American youth. It then took on social, cultural and racial significance in ways no one could have predicted. However, at the same time, the incredible success of the Air Jordan campaigns also made stark revelations. It showed the dark side of America’s love affair with consumer capitalism and celebrity culture.
Nostalgic and dramatic, One Man is a fascinating look at what successful marketing can mean to the consumer. The Air Jordan brand was not just an effective ad campaign. It helped define a generation. One Man provides the ethos behind the creativity of the campaign. Thus, it does a good job helping the viewer to understand how a seemingly simple shoe promotion upended the sports community. Those ads also tapped into the beating heart of a culture that was looking to find hope in their heroes. In helping create the mythos of Jordan himself, their shoes became a way to become like him in some small way. All of a sudden, owning a pair of Jordans was not only a status symbol but also became a piece of your identity.
Although, One Man is more than a celebration of marketing. As the film unfolds, it also reveals the dark heart of consumerism and how that can eat away at the soul of a generation. Nike limited resources and created an unbelievably heavy demand. It thus established Air Jordan as the label for youth culture (and, more specifically, African American youth). However, they also inadvertently produced an environment that was ripe for criminal activity and violence. One Man reveals footage that ranges from broken doors to violent thefts. It thus points out the exploitative nature of Nike’s marketing and their dangerous effects on youth culture. (The NBA initially banned Jordan’s shoes—which didn’t conform to NBA standards at the time. But that ban helped augment the rebellious nature of the shoes themselves).
Interestingly, the press release states that this film is “told by the people who made it happen”. The film absolutely includes crucial voices to the development of the brand. But the two most essential voices—Nike head Phil Knight and Jordan himself—remain silent. (It’s worth noting also that this is not the fault of the film itself, as they point out that they reached to them for comment and heard nothing back). On one hand, their lack of interest in speaking up makes sense. After all, their job is to sell shoes and to make as much money as possible doing so.
Can they really be held accountable for the actions of other people? This is happening at a time when America has shown a shift in corporate culture. There’s now an increased tendency to lean into social injustice issues and take responsibility. Thus, Nike (and Jordan) come across as unwilling to recognize that there may be greater issues at stake than their stockholders. One Man calls out Nike to speak up on behalf of the victims. It thus argues that the company has the opportunity to show their interest in the safety of the same people that they are attempting to reach. However, by remaining silent, their lack of voice seems to speak volumes.
In the end, One Man and His Shoes seems like a title that’s oversimplified. At first, the Air Jordan campaign appears to be about Jordan himself and his pair of elite sneakers. However, it actually extends to the heart of a culture that wants desperately want a piece of their icons. There’s something admirable about desiring more. But the film’s emphasis on the after effects of the campaign also reveals some cultural side effects. It shows what can happen when gaining our identity through marketing shows the emptiness of the soul.
Because, after all, maybe it really is about more than the shoes.
One Man and His Shoes premieres on VOD on August 24th, 2020.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: documentary, Sport
- Release Date: 8/24/2020
- Directed by: Yemi Bamiro
- Produced by: Michael Marden, Will Thorne
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