Justin Tipping’s Kicks is more than just a film about sneakers – but the relevance we place on material wealth and how it contributes to masculinity and violence in poor, urban neighborhoods. Socially, men are programmed to abide by a certain standard of masculinity, which comes with stigmas and a set of rules that we should follow. For example, as children, boys are often encouraged play with toy trucks, Transformers, and footballs because those toys are culturally understood to be “male”-oriented. Boys are often told not to emote, and live in fear of being called soft or a “bitch”. We learn to speak to women by putting on an air of confidence that doesn’t always exist.
Kicks illustrates this system by following a young kid, Brandon (Jahking Guillory ), who grows tired of being ridiculed for his small stature, lack of ego, and his family’s poverty. He manages to get a pair of Nike Air Jordan Bred 1’s, thinking that the shoes will up his social standing and give him some confidence. But, in poor neighborhoods, material wealth can often mean danger, and Brandon is robbed of his sneakers by an older gangbanger named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe ). Brandon, with the help of his two friends (Christopher Meyer and Christopher Jordan Wallace ), go on a journey to get his sneakers back from Flaco.
It seems simplistic on the surface, but Justin Tipping manages to cover an array of issues in the film and bring to light the pressures that befall many young boys.
The director/writer spoke with Inverse about the film’s stance on social issues.
What was it like shooting the film in your hometown — the Bay Area?
It was awesome. I actually didn’t know if I was going to get to because there’s like no tax breaks in California. But, for me, it was very important because it was the world I knew and it was where I grew up. Everywhere we went, someone had a story about what happened in the movie.
They would ask, “What’s the movie about?” and I would be like, “A kid gets jumped for his J’s”. They would go, “That sounds really cool. I just saw a kid get robbed the other day. I totally get it”. And that reminded me that this is an important story to tell cause it happens to so many people.
How does your hometown affect the films you make and the things you choose to portray?
It’s had a huge impact on me and what I want to make. Someone said, Anyone can learn how to make a movie, but the hardest part is figuring out what story to tell”. That comes from you.
Growing up in the Bay, it was a very big mesh of races, cultures, creeds. I got into film making because I wanted to help represent diversity. It’s weird because of course, people will say urban film, but I envision even farther. Like, you can make a sci-fi thriller and cast people of color.
A big theme in the movie is masculinity. Do you think that we have an issue with toxic masculinity?
Yes. I think we have an issue with masculinity across the economic spectrum. But, specifically talking about the kids that are reflected in Kicks, yeah. Growing up, I always lived with some level of anxiety. You’re going to be called a pussy if you don’t fight back or do this or do that. It seemed like the only emotion you were allowed to feel was anger.
And it was never, “Man up and apologize or “Man up and do better at school.” It was, “Man up and beat his ass”. Violence is always somehow associated with masculinity. It was always weird to me that those social hierarchies were already set in stone and then we’re forced to go through it.
If someone beats your ass, you’re grown? Is that a rite of passage? It’s a pretty fucked up one.
What character would you say best represents this type of hyper-masculinity in the film?
Brandon kind of becomes Flaco and then he goes down a dark path and essentially becomes the thing he hated. And Flaco, for me, has the greatest emotional arc, where you think he’s like one thing and then he’s really a father, who doesn’t know how to be a father yet. So, in a way, Flaco might be. Or it might be Uncle Marlon because it feels like he’ll never change.
He’s set in his ways.
Yeah. He’s this false sage in a way. He’s like, this is a dog eat dog world. You either dominate or be dominated. This is how to be a man — you go handle your business. And, in a way, it’s still a truth and a truth that is somewhat right. He is so desensitized to life, which is tragic. But, at the same time, he’s taking care of his two sons and his sick mom. There is a hopelessness about him.
Let’s talk about Flaco for a second. What were you trying to portray with the character, Flaco?
I didn’t want to go make The Dark Knight or something. I didn’t want to go make him the Joker, who just gives no shits. That’s not true or authentic to life.
I was taking on subject matter that was too rooted in social realism. I was listening to Lauryn Hill speak about this so I’m going to steal from her. Sometimes the people kicking you when you’re down have gone through way worst shit. So, I kind of thought, all the kids who are stomping me out, what have they been through? What drove them to that point?
They must have seen some shit or gone through some shit to want to take out that anger on the world. Flaco is basically just a guy who has a kid — who doesn’t actually know how to do it, but you know that he loves him and is definitely trying to provide for him. I think you can empathize with him. You may not be able to sympathize with the way he is acting or the way he messes with Brandon and bullies him, but you can empathize with his situation.
Did you write the raps in the film?
One of the cousins in the movie — his name is Donte Clark from Richmond. He teaches spoken word. He was actually the subject of an amazing documentary called, Romeo is Bleeding that was played at Sundance about turf wars and gang violence in Richmond. I was like, “Donte, can you help write original material for the film?” He said, “Okay”. And he just busted it out. And we were like, “Can you write like four bars to bridge the scenes?” And he said, “Okay,” and recorded it and sent it over. I think it actually elevated the story.
Your short film, Nani, is also focused on an element of rap culture, graffiti. How has hip-hop culture impacted your life?
In a major way. I was for sure a hip hop head growing up. It was all I knew. I had two older brothers who were super into hip-hop and that was how I got put on to Wu-Tang and Biggie. And the first tape I bought was Gang Starr’s “Moment of Truth”. I definitely tried to be a B-boy in middle school. It was so bad. I would show up to the school dance and be like, “Watch this 6 step, though”. It was so stupid, but I tried.
I remember being in 6th grade, going into middle school, somebody came up to me on the first day and tried to get me to join their graffiti crew. And I remember being like, “What?” And now that I think about it, I remember being like, “Mom, can I be in a graffiti crew?” I was like 12 years old. And she was like, “No”. And I was like, “Oh. Okay.” I was a square.
What were you trying to say with the ending to the film?
I wanted everyone to feel like Brandon went through all that, and it’s just another day because it’s important to me to remind people that this happens everyday. And that was the main goal, to make people stop and look back and be like, “Woah. That was fucked up”. And that’s it. It was a moment in their life, but you have to go on with your life.
So, that was the main goal. I’m trying to find a way to send the message that you don’t have to pull the trigger. Timmy Turner don’t pull the burner. Put the gun down Timmy. A melodic song, Desiigner, it’s cool.
Kicks opens in theaters on September 9th.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.