For those happily basking in the feel-good glow of the Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance (2020), Yemi Bamiro’s dissection of the production history and cultural impact of Nike’s Air Jordan shoes shines a revealing light on the unsavoury corporate machinations of 1980s America, and how the ripples from this branding reverberate politically to this day. What starts out as a glossy, rapid-paced sports documentary veers drastically to a serious lambasting of late-stage capitalism and how the treatment of Black Americans by major companies has drastic and deadly consequences. One Man and his Shoes is sure to catch most viewers by surprise as a bold and engaging documentary that peels back the glamour of celebrity sponsorship.
While Bamiro’s documentary doesn’t feature interviews with anyone from Nike or Michael Jordan’s brand, it has a wealth of informed and charismatic personalities. Sports writers and agents, obsessive shoe collectors, and social historians all make appearances to break down how huge an impression the marketing and retailing of the Air Jordans made from the mid-80s. Because the first half solely concentrates on the rise of Nike’s brand and the success of Air Jordans, the documentary initially feels somewhat aggrandising of corporate America. Why are we being asked to invest in the story of a massive sportswear conglomerate as if they were an underdog?
But the documentary is worth a watch solely to see a brilliant array of increasingly crazy commercials from Reagan-era America. The sheer insanity and excess of the promotion of celebrity sponsorship, mixing cheesy dialogue with the athletes’ flat performances, is consistently amusing. Even more interesting is the inclusion of Spike Lee’s collaboration with Nike, when he directed and starred in a series of commercials as his character Mars Blackmon from his debut film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). The documentary doesn’t go into much depth about how Lee’s avant-garde, fresh, and distinctly anti-establishment film was immediately co-opted by a wealthy corporation for marketing purposes, but for those who haven’t seen this early work from Lee, it’s a must-see.
It’s in the second half that we learn why no official Nike ambassadors make an appearance in the film, as Bamiro’s documentary makes stark criticisms of their retailing practices. Because of scarcity for the Air Jordans in low-income environments, as well as the marketing that cemented the shoes as a status symbol, Bamiro argues that the dichotomy between supply and demand has lethal results. Those unimpressed by the peppy overview of a mildly-interesting moment in popular culture will be hooked by Bamiro’s railing against the lack of corporate accountability in America. The allegiances of celebrities are not with their everyday, vulnerable fans, but with the brands that write their royalty cheques. Those with money and power have the responsibility, Bamiro effectively argues, to admit culpability for their actions.