Coming off the heels of The Last Dance, which seemingly took over the world back in April of this year, director Yemi Bamiro's One Man and His Shoes documentary continues to explore the phenomenon that is Michael Jordan. This time, however, it takes a deep dive into the world of Air Jordan sneakers. Jordan's sneaker brand with Nike changed the face of marketing and sneaker culture, but it also has a dark history that the new documentary explores.
Humza Hussain had the opportunity to speak with Yemi Bamiro, a day after a preview screening of One Man and His Shoes had a sell-out at the Everyman Cinema, and they discuss Bamiro's seven years making the film, it releasing the same year as The Last Dance, and what surprised Bamiro during his research for this project. It's a deep dive into an independent project that is now flourishing, and a peek behind the curtain of one of the greatest brands in sports.
How was the London Film Festival premiere because, obviously, due to the current climate, it was probably not how you imagined it would be?
“It was really hard to sort of engage with the festival if you get what I'm saying? Because we did lots of promotional stuff around the festival, which was awesome. But normally, if it was a physical festival, I go every year, and I go and see so many films. But I didn't really get a chance to see that much this year because we were promoting this film, and yeah, it was a little hard. But yeah, it seemed to find an audience at the London Film Festival, and I was quite surprised by the groundswell that came as a result of the London Film Festival.
“I've always been aware that festivals are a massive deal, but I was super surprised by how many people engaged with our film because it was at London Film Festival. So, yeah, I was chuffed to be honest, because I've been going to that film festival as a fan for so many years. To have a film there, it was massive for us.”
Were you still able to get that immediate reaction from the premiere?
“I think so, yeah. I think because people post stuff on Twitter, and you sort of see that, and I think we were able to engage with people that had seen the film. So, yeah, it was good. We enjoyed it.”
I'm glad to hear that. Finding out that you worked on this film for seven years blew my mind. So all of these experiences, like the sell-out, must make the experience worthwhile?
“Yeah, it's funny that you say that because I've never really thought about this end of the process. You're always so focused on getting the film finished and just getting a cut of the film, and you never really think about the film coming out and going to festivals and stuff like that. So the last couple of weeks have felt really surreal. Doing interviews and talking to people about this film, but the thing is, I could talk to people about this film forever because it feels like we've been making it forever.
“So I never get bored of talking about it, you know? But yeah, it does feel really rewarding to sort of have the film come out, particularly in these times. I think independent film has taken a battering in the last seven months, and I think there are lots of filmmakers who have struggled to get their projects out or have had their projects shelved because of this pandemic. So we feel very fortunate and privileged to have the opportunity to put our film out there in this way, given the circumstances. So, yeah, it has been great.”
And speaking of the seven years, I bet that seven years ago, you could not have predicted that your film would come out the same year The Last Dance comes out and takes over the world (laughs)?
“(Laughs) No, not at all. And you know, what's funny about that is I was aware of The Last Dance for a number of years, like, I knew that Netflix and ESPN were making this thing. I don't know if you remember, but they would basically drop a trailer every year around Christmas, saying that this would happen. They did it two years in a row.”
I didn't actually see that to be honest.
“Yeah, yeah – they dropped these trailers two years in a row. I think starting, maybe in 2018. So I was aware that it was coming, and I just heard through the grapevine that it was coming, and I always hoped that by the time it did come, we would have our film finished and be quite far down the road. But then life has a strange way of just changing your plans, so South by Southwest got cancelled, which was where we were meant to launch the film in March. Then, obviously, the pandemic happened.
“ESPN and Netflix pushed The Last Dance forward because it was meant to come the backend of summer, and instead, it came in like April. So, yeah, it was crazy. I've said this a few times, we existed in the slipstream of that show because what it did was it showed that there is an appetite for all things Michael Jordan, and it was the most watched thing ever. It was at the height of lockdown, and I think it showed commissioners and audiences that there is an appetite for this, and we just happened to have a finished film that dealt with some of the same issues and themes as The Last Dance. We were able to coexist, and it was a benefit to us that The Last Dance came out.”
From personal experience, I can say that because of The Last Dance, my interest in One Man and His Shoes was greater because it almost continues the momentum that The Last Dance built.
“I'm so glad that you say that because I feared the worst when they started plugging it. I was just like, “Are people going to be fatigued? Ten hours of Michael Jordan, are people going to be able to deal with another eighty-five minutes of Air Jordan stuff?” I was really worried, and then when I did eventually sit down and watch it, I was like, “This is actually amazing.” One of my favourite decades in the NBA is the nineties. Nineties NBA, that decade is just phenomenal in terms of the elevation of superstar athletes. The elevation of marketing, and obviously what the Bulls and Michael Jordan did. It was like the NBA really came into itself as a spectacle. As a global spectacle, so nineties NBA has always been my favourite.
“That's what The Last Dance felt like to me. It felt like this incredible time capsule, and you're like, that's what it used to be. Almost like a really cool nostalgia trip, like you're just like, wow, that's incredible. Look at what they used to wear. Look at the players, the baggy suits, the music…”
“The cigars, yeah. I was a massive fan of it, and I really enjoyed it. I think by the time I was able to watch it, our film was like picture locked, and we were all at peace with what our film was. So I was really able to watch it with some distance and not do the compare and contrast, which may have been the case if we were still in edit or something.”
It all worked out well. Of course, your film doesn't have MJ [Michael Jordan], but it does have a great array of interviews with people like David Falk and Scoop Jackson. I wanted to know, what was the process and mindset for you going into these interviews? Did you ever have to slow play it because I know it took certain people about two years to accept being in the film?
“I think one thing I used to my advantage was that I had a giddy enthusiasm talking to these people because I was aware of their stature in this story. So I was naturally interested in talking to them, and I think that came across immediately. Especially with someone like Sonny Vaccaro, who took about eighteen to twenty-four months to interview. From the first time I contacted him, it took like perhaps another two years to get him in the film. I think it was just the fact that he wasn't ready to talk, and I was also aware that it would be really difficult to tell this story without Sonny.
“So in terms of the process, we just kept knocking on people's doors. Almost like grinding them down a little bit (laughs) and just pleading with them, and I think that enthusiasm comes across. I think if you're sort of an older guy, and a lot of these guys are older. Like late sixties, early seventies – so they are kind of reflecting on their legacy. They're reflecting on their place in the world, and I think if some random guy from South London sort of like says, “Can I interview you about this significant, quite seminal period of your life in which you made this contribution?” I think they are going to be like, “Yeah, cool. If you're going to fly across the world, come and talk to me.” I think it was a lot of that.
“In terms of the process in interviewing them, yeah, I was just enthused, and I was impassioned because I knew how important these guys were. I've always looked at them as like architects of sneaker culture. If you're talking about Peter Moore or Sonny Vaccaro or David Falk, they created this thing that we kind of all revel in today, which is sneaker culture. I just went into these interviews, having all of these questions, and I didn't necessarily have to look at a piece of paper. I just had a lot of stuff in my head that I kind of wanted to talk to them about. We've all got egos, so I think they were perhaps flattered, and as a result, they were really generous with their time. So that's pretty much how it worked.”
So it was like a natural flow. Letting your instincts take over.
“Yeah, it was completely natural. I just kept hounding people (laughs). I kept sending emails. If I didn't hear back for a week, I'd send another email. I just wanted them to know how important this project was to me and also how important it was that they were involved because of their contribution to this. So it was almost like this mutual thing, and they didn't have to do much. It was me that was going to get on a plane and come and see them. That's pretty much how it worked out.”
It is surreal how much of a story there is behind a sneaker, and after watching the film, you do also realise how much impact it's had on the culture. Today, we see Roger Federer's special Wimbledon trainers and Cristiano Ronaldo's CR7 trainers etc. Then the film takes a dark turn in act three, which I know you were aware of beforehand. But was there anything that surprised you during your research?
“No, nothing to do with sneaker crime surprised me because I just knew it all still happened. I was actually surprised about the frequency in which some of the shootings and the murders were happening. You know, every so often, I would Google “Robbery Air Jordan's” or “Shootings Air Jordan,” and you would see all of these local stories come up. Stuff in Detroit, Chicago – all across America, and I was just shocked by the frequency in which the crimes were still happening.
“These crimes were not necessarily generating national news. They were only local news. But the Joshua Woods story, the story that's in the third act of the film, the reason why I knew about that was because it generated national news, and I actually read about it in a paper in the UK. I read about, maybe in The Guardian or The Mail or something. It wasn't a big article, but it was just like, “Man killed for Air Jordan's.” It was like, damn, I'm reading about these stories here now. That surprised me.”
The level of publicity?
“Yeah, the level. I think it happens all the time in America, but they're just local news stories, and it's such a big country. So something that happens in like, inner-city Houston might not reach the national news cycle, let alone the international, which is the Joshua Woods story. So there wasn't anything I was necessarily surprised by, apart from the frequency of the crimes. After I started speaking to Dazie, and I started looking into it, I realised this is happening as much as it was happening in the nineties. People were just not aware of it.
“When I would speak to older people, they would ask if that was still happening because they thought it was something that just happened in the nineties. They weren't aware that it was still happening today.”
One of my main criticisms of the film was in relation to the argument related to the crimes, and this wasn't your guy's fault necessarily because you tried. But because we don't have MJ or Nike's voice in the film, we miss that side of the argument, if that's a fair criticism from me?
“Yeah, I think that's fair. I think that we tried to make that as balanced as possible because I think if you look at the end of the film, I think there are contributors who were really batting for Nikey and saying things like, you don't become a billion-pound company by doing overproduction. But yeah, they weren't in the film, but I don't think they would ever want to be in the film. I think, perhaps now, if I was making this film now, I would have a better chance of getting them. Just because of the crossover of those sorts of issues and brands. I think brands are very much aware of how important it is to have a voice on stuff that resonates with their core audience base.
“But when I was making this film, we reached out to them, and we didn't necessarily hear back from them. So, yeah, I think it's a fair criticism, but I think in our defence as filmmakers, we always tried to make it as balanced as possible. Like, I went into the film not with any agenda to sort of like change people's opinions in the third act of the film. I always knew we were going to have a third act that looked at that issue, because unfortunately, that is the legacy of the shoe. The legacy of this shoe kind of revolves around the fact that there have been murders and senseless violence over these sneakers. So that was always something I knew that we wanted to explore.
“But the entry point was celebration. It was a celebration of this man, these marketing strategies, how savvy Nikey were, how ahead of the curve they were, and it was always sort of like a celebration of the genius of this company. But I think it would have been irresponsible for me not to talk about the crimes because it's something I was always aware of, even as a fourteen-year-old in South London. But I get your point.”
It definitely had to be in there for sure. One thing I was thinking about is that we don't see a lot of David Falk in act three. He would have perhaps been a good voice for MJ and Nike's side. Did he not want to go into it?
“I think it was really delicate, to be honest. It was a really delicate – I went into the David Falk interview with a bit of a mindset like, “This is insane, we've got David Falk. This is Michael Jordan's agent.” So there were things that I knew I really wanted him to talk about, i.e. he coined the phrase Air Jordan, so it was important he told me about that. He was behind sealing all those marketing deals, including the Nikey one with Michael Jordan, and I wanted to know how he engineered that. I wanted to know the intricacies of the Air Jordan deal because he was at the forefront of that. So I guess I knew there were things he would be brilliant at, and he just told us so much. That was like a three-hour interview.
“I think I did maybe ask him [about Air Jordan violence], but it wasn't a great answer, and I took comfort from the fact that he had given us so much. He had articulated so many gems that I wasn't even aware of. Stuff that you wouldn't even be able to read in books was the stuff that he gave us. So I was just like, “Okay, fine. I don't feel that I need to push on that.” So I always felt that the Air Jordan sneaker crimes thing and talking to people that were really close to him [Jordan] was quite a sensitive thing, and yeah, I did ask David, but I don't think the answer was great. Therefore, we didn't include it.”
One thing I love about the film, and it's similar to Last Dance, is you really tap into the cool factor of your subject. Air Jordan's are cool, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are cool. I think Last Dance did that a lot with music, and you guys do it with graphics surrounding the screen that represent the sneakers. How important is it in 2020, especially for documentaries, to tap into that cool factor?
“Yeah, I don't think documentary is a dirty word anymore, and I think that is, because of the fact that over the last decade, we have seen the elevation of the craft, in terms of from a creative perspective. There have been years where the best films of the year have been documentaries. I think if you look across the last couple of years, there have been some incredible films that have been made. I think you don't necessarily have the limitations that narrative and dramatisations have. You almost have that open goal to sort of be courageous and be brave in the storytelling. There isn't any rules to abide by – you can keep recreating the medium and doing exciting things.
“So I think to go back to your question, how important do I think it is? I think it's really important, but I think it falls down to the individual filmmaker and also the story. I think for us, the reason we wanted that sort of visual aesthetic, that visual language is because we felt that it fitted the personality and the rhythm, and the themes of some of the film. Because if you look at the film, it's fast-paced, it's engaging, it's heightened, and it is just cool. So we wanted to have a visual aesthetic that sort of complimented that. I also feel that because we didn't have a huge budget, we wanted to have animation and graphic design to do some of the heavy lifting that the archive would've done if we could have afforded it.
“We couldn't afford lots of archive, so we kind of substituted the archive with stills and cool graphics because we knew that might be more interesting than paying over the odds for archive that is only going to be on screen for fifteen seconds and is going to cost us like fifteen grand. So it was a very easy decision, and it was one we decided on right at the beginning of the process. When I was thinking about this film, I made like a short film, which was about nine minutes, and it was basically like a teaser that I was going to take to people to publicise the fact that I have this idea for a film and here is a teaser for it. In that teaser, it had all of that visual language that eventually ended up in the film. So we knew from the beginning that we wanted to have a mixture of talking heads, archive, animation, and then the film was going to go into sort of vérité and observational filmmaking in the third act for the human interest stories.”
It worked very well, and it's also a visual hook for the audience. You also touched on documentaries not being a dirty word anymore. I think sports documentaries have become a lot more prominent in recent years. Why do you think that is?
“It's a good question. I think I have to credit, in terms of its mass-market appeal, I think, I have to credit Asif Kapadia with Senna. I think when Senna came out, I think that completely changed the landscape of how people viewed sports documentaries. I don't necessarily think I'm doing a disservice to other films by saying that. There are other films like When We Were Kings or Hoop Dreams, which is a sports documentary. There have been sports documentaries since the beginning, but I mean, in that commerciality of sports documentary that really managed to capture the imagination of a big audience, I think Senna changed the game, man.
“People that no idea of Formula 1 went in to watch that film and were like, “Oh my god, that's an incredible story.” So I think films like Senna definitely have contributed to that. I think it showed filmmakers and the industry as a whole what is possible in terms of like storytelling and how you can communicate ideas that might feel a little bit niche and then make them big. So I think Senna was definitely able to do that. I think his follow up films like the Diego Maradona film equally the same. So I think Asif Kapadia has done a lot of incredible work, and people definitely followed his lead a little bit after that.”
The film obviously touches on a lot of different things, especially black history, black culture, and things today like, the Black Lives Matter movement. So my question is, how much do you think Air Jordan's have either negatively or positively impacted the perception of the black community?
“It's a good question. I think if you think about the Air Jordan brand, I think a few of the contributors say it, you can't really reference any other brand that is helmed by an African American man, and then owned by an African American man, and then appeals to African American's because of the fact that this African American man that owns this brand is the greatest basketball player ever. So when you think about the brand, it's aspirational. It's an aspirational brand. If you're sort of like a young kid and see Michael Jordan when you're ten years old, you're like, “Oh my god, that's incredible, this guy's flying. Oh my god, this guy's in Space Jam with the Looney Tunes.” It's representation.
“I think when you're tapping into the Air Jordan brand, you're tapping into legacy. You're tapping into aspirations. This is a brand that is fronted by a black man, and this black man also happens to be the greatest basketball player ever, and he also owns this brand, which is the biggest sports brand ever. So I think all of those things, if you're like a ten-year-old kid, it will blow your mind.
“But when it comes to this idea of corporate responsibility and the marketing of these brands to certain communities, I feel that if you're a corporation and you borrow heavily from the black experience, and borrow heavily from black bodies, and you use that in marketing to other black people. Then when stuff happens to the black community, perhaps you have a responsibility to talk up. Given the fact that your whole business model and whole business is built off the back of what African American's have brought to the table, not just if you're Michael Jordan, but in terms of making that brand what it is today. You could argue in a way that because African American's make things cool, it's got white kids from the Hamptons and other communities buying Jordan's.
“I think it's aspirational, and I think if you think about the fact that Jordan branding employs a lot of African American's in senior roles, there's lots of senior African American executives that work for that brand. So I think it is aspirational, but when you get into corporate responsibility and marketing, for me, it turns into a different conversation. Like these are conversations about underserved communities and inequality, and things that perhaps make people want to go out and shoot people for a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. There are so many issues that predate that issue, so it becomes something else. But on a surface level, yeah, you're tapping into it because it's aspirational.”
Finally, when people watch this documentary, what do you want them to take away from it?
“Um, that's a good question. I'm not really that sure. I kind of think that when we went into making the film, we kind of just wanted to lay all the facts to this pretty incredible story and just leave it to the viewers' discretion. But I think if I'm thinking about it now, I guess I would like them to sort of take away the fact that Nike were basically at the forefront of everything we have now in terms of mass-market marketing. And it all sorted of started with them and what they did with Michael Jordan, and I think every other brand since then has basically tried to play catch up.
“In the late seventies and early eighties, Nike knew how important it was to market to the consumer in the way that they did. So essentially, this is a marketing story that deals with the benefits and ills of capitalism, and I think that is basically what the film is about. You can take the Air Jordan, and you can take Michael Jordan, and you can replace it with so many other companies, in terms of what it says to us about capitalism and consumerism. You can take the Jordan brand and put Amazon or Apple in there, and you could still have a similar story. I guess I want people to see the nuance of the film, that it is a marketing story. It is about how this company was ahead of the curve and basically laid the foundation for everything that we have today.”
Read FilmHounds full review of One Man and His Shoes
One Man and His Shoes is now out in cinemas like BFI Southbank, ArtHouse Crouch End, Barbican, and HOME Manchester. For more information visit: https://www.onemanandhisshoes.com/
Documentary images and videos courtesy of the One Man and His Shoes team