When you’re fifteen years old, the desire to fit in can be overwhelming. For some of us, if we’re lucky, that carnal need to seek out the opinions of others fades slowly as we move further and further into adulthood. However, in adolescence, that thirst for approval is often tied to brand name material objects. For 15-year-old Brandon in Justin Tipping’s debut film “Kicks” that material object is a pair of black and red Jordan sneakers; the originals.
Told with sweeping and surrealist cinematography that paints the picture of a practically glittering Bay Area, “Kicks” follows the idealistic but scrawny Brandon, who believes that acquiring these retro J’s will enable him to fit in with his friends and peers. Instead, he rocks some shredded (once white) Air Force Ones from his middle school days. (When I was growing up, we called shoes likes these biscuits.) Painfully shy, Brandon exists almost on the outskirts of his friend group. He’s content to sit on the sidelines while his homeboys flirt with girls and run up and down the sun draped basketball court. Fed up with being the underdog and with his lack of shoe game, Brandon scrapes together some money for the once unattainable J’s, which he purchases from the back of Crazy Daryl’s van. The new kicks are life changing. Brandon suddenly becomes wrapped in a feeling of euphoria, where nothing feels out of reach for him. Unfortunately, his joy is short-lived as he’s soon jumped by a gangster named Flocko and his crew; the fresh sneaks ripped cruelly from his feet.
The duration of the film follows Brandon’s desperate quest to recapture not only his sneakers, but also his perceived masculinity. Dragging along his best friends – ladies man Rico and self-proclaimed R&B singer Albert – Brandon travels from the Bay to Oakland dragging his cousins and his fresh-out-of-prison Uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali) along on his dangerous adventure. As Brandon barrels forward blindly on his journey to be reunited with his Js, he’s confronted with the fact that all actions have consequences; a concept that often seems like an afterthought during our teenage years. Furthermore, the audience learns that Flocko has his own complex motivations for his volatile behavior.
Most of the film works wonderfully. However, I’ve found that first time directors often pull out every trick in their arsenal, and cram them into their feature debut. For example, the title cards of rap lyrics constantly being interwoven, as well as the ever-present boyhood representation of the suited astronaut guiding Brandon along his quest, left the story feeling disjointed at times. In my opinion, it would have been executed even more eloquently without either.
Still, what Tipping masters perfectly in the film is the constant ebb and flow of humor, and darkness, that runs through the narrative that is inner city boyhood. “Kicks” exists somewhere between Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope” and John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”. It’s an uncomfortable place, but that’s why the film works so brilliantly. “Kicks” literally feels like adolescence. Featuring an extremely strong and fresh-faced cast, with Jahking Guillory as Brandon and the sensational Kofi Siriboe as the menacing Flocko, “Kicks” highlights some unwaveringly sobering truths about black masculinity, violence, and the lust for shiny things.
In the Q&A after the film’s premiere, Tipping said that he was inspired to write this story because he got jumped over a pair of Nikes when he was sixteen years old. Much more than a film about sneaker fetishization, “Kicks” is a 21st century tale about inner city masculinity and the feelings of isolation and loneliness that often plague us during adolescence. It’s a film about manhood and the cycles that continue to spiral through generations, flattening many Black men while others barely escape the carnage. Most importantly, it’s a cautionary tale. As Brandon learns, if you’re going to stake your life on something, it damn sure better be worth dying for.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami