Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Director Justin Tipping’s film Kicks is a deceptively simple story with complex themes, an examination of masculinity, poverty, and black urban culture both moving and unique, told through the eyes of an East Bay teenager who buys – and then loses – a pair of Nike Air Jordans.
Brandon (Jahking Guillory) spends his days hanging out with his friends Albert (Christopher Wallace Jr.) and Rico (Christopher Meyer) in their East Bay neighborhood. Unlike his friends, Brandon is small for his age and a target for bullies, from whom he has learned to run rather than fight. Left without any outward markers of status, Brandon’s dream is to replace his beat-up shoes with a pair of Nike Air Jordans. Stealing money from his mother, he buys a pair from a local dealer, but is attacked on his way home by a local gang led by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who steals his shoes. Infuriated, Brandon enlists the help of his two friends to cross the Bay and get his Air Jordans back.
Kicks takes the simple, even clichéd threads of this story and weaves them into something poignant and unique. Brandon and his friends live in a world that constantly places them on the edge – bullies are eventual gang members, the loss of a pair of shoes means a loss of status, image, and self-respect. Brandon is small, an easy target, his confidence and self-worth tied to his outward performance – as is also true for both his friends and enemies. Flaco espouses a violent masculinity, where beating someone up for a pair of shoes becomes an exercise in dominance and power. This is what men do, not boys—boys are the ones that get their shoes stolen. Allowing someone to steal from you without reacting does not just mean losing a pair of shoes, but of losing any claim to masculine self-worth.
Kicks is a very real dialogue about masculinity and violence. Brandon’s friends are still hyper-sexual; Rico has a string of sexual relationships with girls, while Albert constantly buys king-size condoms and invites his friends over to watch porn. Their masculinity lies in their sexuality – not so much what women think of them, but what other men their age think of them and their relationship to women. In this context, Brandon is still a child, symbolized by his beat-up shoes from middle school, and only when he gets his new “kicks” does a girl approach. The presence of the shoes acts as both a sexual and a status symbol, but they also provide Brandon with an outward presentation of confidence. Even so, he refuses to play basketball in his new shoes; he makes no commitment to going to a party a girl invites him to. His outward show of confidence is still masked internally; he has achieved a symbol of masculinity, but still feels too much like a boy.
The adolescent posturing of Albert and Rico gives way to the far darker masculine postures of Flaco and Brandon’s uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali), from whom Brandon seeks advice. Marlon is a gangster not long out of prison after murdering another gang member – he refuses to help Brandon, implying that his nephew is getting himself into more trouble than a pair of shoes is worth. Marlon’s imprisonment was a result of another man trying to steal from him. His awareness of the stakes of the culture exceeds Brandon’s. But Marlon is also firmly entrenched in the very culture that he would have Brandon walk away from – and he advises his nephew to either leave Flaco alone, or truly invest in becoming that kind of man. Brandon continues his pursuit, straddling the divide between masculinities, the boyhood where a pair of shoes indicates self-worth, and the manhood that requires violence for violence, and violation for violation.
Buoyed by the performances of the young cast, Kicks traverses the closed spaces of poverty and the openness of urban sprawl, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere where there’s a bully around the corner, and a gun lying beside a baby on the bed. Brandon has choices to make about the sort of man he will become, and whether he will eventually buy into the masculine paradigms of the men around him. Yet Kicks is not a simple coming-of-age story – it’s a story about the discovery of self-worth, and about the prizing of possessions and honor codes over the humanity of individuals, and the choices a boy makes about what sort of man he will become.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)