South London film-maker Yemi Bamiro confidently unboxes the history of sport’s most lucrative endorsement deal.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, basketball’s most valuable player was unquestionably Michael Jordan. His domination of the game throughout the 80s and 90s helped him to amass a fortune of $2.1 billion, and the bulk of those riches came from a deal first signed with Nike in 1984. One Man and His Shoes documents the history of the Air Jordan, from its inception as a disruptive marketing campaign through to its wider cultural and darker social impact.

Back in the 1980’s Converse was the brand that ruled basketball courts, and ballers were happy simply just to get free shoes. Nike, then a small and struggling brand and legendary basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro spotted the promise of a gangly rookie and built a brand around him. The first act of Bamiro’s energetic documentary feels like a marketing theory masterclass. Using the key players of the time such as David Falk (Jordan’s former agent), David J Stern (NBA commissioner 1984-2014), Peter Moore (designer of the ‘wing’ Air Jordon logo), and Vaccaro to entertainingly detail how the deal came into existence.

Nike had projected Air Jordan sales of $3million over the first three years, it did $126 million in the first 12 months alone. Time is fittingly given to telling the importance of the ‘It’s Gotta Be the Shoes’ TV campaign directed by a young Spike Lee, fresh off of helming She’s Gotta Have It. Featuring Lee as his Mars Blackmon character, the ads lent the Jordon brand a cool factor that catapulted the shoes’ appeal.

One Man’s narrative deftly passes the action between first-hand straight to camera interviews, retro graphic animation, and judicious use of archive footage to convey the era and the energy surrounding the development of what was to become a cultural phenomenon. We hear from collectors across the globe reverently explaining their devotion to a shoe that takes all their disposable income and available storage space. As a sportsman and brand ambassador Michael Jordan was able to cross racial boundaries that the average black man in America could not traverse and his record-setting achievements on the court powered the brand’s commercial success.

As the ad slogan said, everybody wants to ‘Be like Mike’. However, this is where the documentary takes an unexpected and somewhat jarring turn. The film reveals the marketing strategy put in play by Nike which created the must-have sneaker culture and stoked the brand’s meteoric success. By limiting the number of shoes released in stores each week and having athletes wear the shoes five months before they were available, Nike generated unprecedented levels of demand. With the use of grainy CCTV video footage and the testimony of families left behind, Bamiro concludes by linking the death of boys and men killed for their Jordans to the mythology created by Nike and the man himself.

The contributors and the film surmise that at a time where impoverished black communities were ravaged by the crack epidemic and within a society that continues to place no value on its lives, wearing $180 sneakers perhaps gave the wearer some symbol of measure.

By Sam Ellington – @Thisisthelife_x


One Man and His Shoes premiere at the BFI London Film Festival Release: In UK cinemas 23 October & on VOD 26 October