VICE’s ‘One Man and His Shoes’ documentary explores Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers becoming a cultural sensation

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The timing of the new VICE TV documentary, A man and his shoescouldn’t be better, a week away from ESPN’s completion the last dance. Interest in Michael Jordan’s legendary NBA career and its cultural impact has been rejuvenated, and the appetite for Jordanian content is voracious.

Part of the VICE VERSA series of VICE TV special documentaries, A man and his shoes essentially serves as an extended version of what Episode 5 (and to some extent, Episode 1) of the last dance Addressed: The cultural phenomenon of Nike’s Air Jordan shoe line. Director Yemi Bamiro doesn’t have to tell a larger narrative (although his film eventually does), so he can zoom in on that aspect of Jordan’s story.

The documentary covers the history of the shoe, what it has done for Nike, what it has done for Jordan and the NBA, and what it has done to black culture. Altogether, it’s a fascinating chronicle of the shoe industry and sneaker culture, with the one man who fueled both trends becoming a global icon.

As spectators of the last dance learned, Jordan wasn’t interested in signing with Nike right out of college. Phil Knight’s company had no presence in basketball, primarily known for its track and tennis shoes. Converse was the shoe of the NBA, worn by stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. And Reebok was ahead of Nike in terms of market popularity.

But Jordan’s agent David Falk and Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (who was kicked out of the last dance) saw the rising superstar as a way to change the basketball shoe landscape. It used to be that shoe companies signed basketball stars when they were already established. It was an opportunity to build a brand right from the start.

Air Jordan broke the mould. Hell, the shoe was so groundbreaking that it was first banned by the NBA. What’s cooler than an outlaw sneaker? The line was so successful that Jordan earned hundreds of millions of dollars from a contract that Nike would never have agreed to had it known how many shoes would sell. Just as Jordan changed NBA basketball, his signature shoes completely changed the shoe game.

Related: An original pair of Air Jordan 1s – worn in-game, autographed by Michael Jordan – are up for auction and could sell for a record high

But they weren’t just basketball shoes. They have become fashion iconography and highly sought after collectables. Bamiro collects a series of interviews to tell the story of the Air Jordans phenomenon, including Nike designers and marketers, academics, advertising executives, sneaker collectors and sports writers Jemele Hill, Scoop Jackson, Roland Lazenby and Rick Telander.

Bamiro’s film could have remained focused on the fun of sneaker culture (fueled by Will Newell’s exceptional graphics and animation), which is so intriguing. A Detroit collector who owns nearly 1,200 pairs of Air Jordans is featured, along with others shown around the world, including Tokyo and Paris. As one observer says, it’s an addiction.

Still, he feels responsible for taking a serious turn in the violence caused by the fury of these shoes. 1990 by Telander Sports Illustrated cover story, entitled “Your sneakers or your life”, highlighted the dark side of sneaker culture created by Nike, Jordan (with filmmaker Spike Lee, as the documentary claims), and racial disparity in our society. The documentary asks if Nike and Jordan himself should have done more to fight young black men being beaten and killed for their Air Jordans, rather than continually perpetuating a market that created these circumstances.

This shift in tone might turn off some viewers who enjoy the nostalgic trip and pop culture artifact that the first two-thirds of A man and his shoes provide. But it’s also an important part of this story, which could arguably fill a separate documentary on its own.

Because of that, A man and his shoes almost feels like two different movies, which keeps it from being as resonant as it could have been. But it’s still a good accompaniment to the last dance and the story of Michael Jordan.

VICE VERSA: A man and his shoes will air Monday night on VICE TV at 8 p.m. ET. The documentary is also available on VICETV.com and the VICE TV app.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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