15-year-old Brandon is running. From what exactly, we aren’t sure. His heart is pounding, the music intensifies: “Sometimes I wish I had a spaceship—just hang out in space where it’s quiet and no one can mess with me.” So begins the trailer for Kicks, a modern coming-of-age film about a boy, his first pair of Js, and his struggles with isolation, bullying, masculinity, poverty, and loneliness.
It’s not exactly a new narrative, but one that is deeply personal to co-writer and director Justin Tipping. For his debut feature length film, set to release nationwide on September 9, Justin wanted to pay homage to his Bay Area roots, channel his experiences as an adolescent involved in the sneaker community, and begin a larger discussion surrounding societal expectations for young men. “I found it really important to at least start changing the narrative about how we can speak to the youth really and how we can get them socially engaged,” he told me over the phone as I interviewed him for The Hundreds. Justin is thoughtful and deliberate in his answers—and in his filmmaking.
Kicks recently showed at the Tribeca Film Festival, an accomplishment that was both nerve-wracking and exciting for Justin. “New York definitely fucks with Kicks,” he said of the world premiere, laughing. “Of course New York gets this.”
From conceptualizing, to casting, to attending the film festival, Justin has been able to see his directorial dream come to fruition. He’s stood by his film, adamant about telling a story revolving around marginalized communities and commodity fetishism, delivering something that is refreshingly real and distant from the whitewashed world of Hollywood. I got the chance to chat with him about the entire process, the movies that influenced him the most, and what he hopes audiences take away from Kicks. Read our conversation below.
KAT THOMPSON: What first drew you to the idea of creating a coming-of-age story that revolves around the allure and cult-like following of sneakers?
JUSTIN TIPPING: I actually had the idea back in 2009. I was studying at the American Film Institute and I was trying to figure out what my story was and what story I wanted to tell. I always look back on this time in my adolescence that I’ll never forget, which is the time I was jumped by like ten kids. That initially started because I was wearing a pair of new Nikes. That always stuck with me. I chose that, coupled with the aftermath of that experience. I was walking around school and the neighborhoods and peers were like, “Did you get a hit in?” and questioning my manhood. My brother was like, “Oh, it’s okay. You’re a man now”—trying to console me as I had two black eyes. It was that moment that was really the emotional impetus for that context.
“… the Bay kind of became a character. There’s a lot of process in writing; I just kept going back to what I knew and the people I knew and the shape of their lives.”
At the same time, it made me proud, but it was also saddening. It was like, why is the idea associated with masculinity? And why do we have this societal construct where the idea of manhood is defined in very specific ways? It’s a dog-eat-dog world, or you have to get out, or the only emotion you can feel is anger—you can’t cry. So that’s kind of where I got the idea of shoe culture and that domain—and it hasn’t slowed down or stopped. That was another way to get into that idea and also comment on a problem that exists and happens everyday.
That’s definitely the vibe I got from just watching the trailer. People will misconstrue it and say, “It’s just a movie about sneakers,” but these sneakers are a vessel to talk about hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity. Do you feel that you channeled yourself into the main character Brandon?
I definitely do. I think a lot of the anxiety I had during those awkward years—it was hard not to get into a fight or not get bullied or whatever it was... I think a lot of that was channeled into his character for sure—the internalization of all that. He walks around and raps in his head as a security blanket and I feel like lots of kids do that; maybe it was just me [laughs]. So he’s rapping these hypermasculine rap lyrics to give him new confidence. So yeah, there’s some me in there for sure.
Jahking Guillory plays 15-year-old Brandon. (source: youtube.com)
And you also grew up in the Bay Area right? How did your upbringing in the Bay Area influence your work or this film?
The Bay influenced it a great deal I think. While sitting down and writing this, the Bay kind of became a character. There’s a lot of process in writing; I just kept going back to what I knew and the people I knew and the shape of their lives. Because it was this kind of journey, it was important because I felt the story there, especially the culture and hip-hop and the diversity in the Bay. I don’t know if I was aware of it growing up but looking back, it meant a lot.
I love that you say that the Bay Area is a character in itself... When was the moment you decided to become a filmmaker and how did you know that was the career for you?
It took awhile. I grew up never understanding I could be one and I never thought of it until I was around that in college. I started studying film history and cultural theory and got exposed to all these movies. That was even later in college—I didn’t even know what I was doing... but I kind of fell in love with film. You learned about the misrepresentation and underrepresentation that exists on screen and in history.
At a certain moment in time, I was like, “Wow, this is a very powerful medium. I don’t see anyone that represents me or reflects my experiences on screen; why can’t I be the one to tell that story?” So I kind of made that choice but didn’t really know how to get there. It took a few years of just working on sets and doing all kinds of random jobs in shooting and editing in film. I finally started making short films... and that solidified what I set out to do—to direct.
Yeah, representation is so important. Speaking of representation, and talking about sneaker culture, at the core of it there is very much a brotherhood and a community-oriented thing. People who are a part of that community have a lifelong obsession with footwear. Can you speak about why you chose sneaker culture as a vessel for your message and how you represented that culture in a way that is fair and accurate, seeing that it is such a niche culture?
I was kind of operating on two levels of it. There is a darker side of materialism and commodity fetishism in America for sure. The motivation could get into branding and how things can get weird with violence and hypermasculinity. It’s a Molotov mixture. But at the same time, it’s hard to pitch the story to people who know nothing about sneakers or the community. “Why does he want to get his shoes back? Why sneakers?” And that always infuriated me because—I mean, I get it because I grew up around it but a lot of people don’t understand the cultural context of what sneakers are now. They just view them as purely function.
Director Justin Tipping.
A lot of reporters in the media are very condescending and dismissive when there’s a riot or a fight over shoes. They’re like, “Oh, over a pair of shoes? Who would spend money on that?” And it’s like, that’s not helping solve the problem of shoe violence. You’re making it worse and degrading and diminishing the people that view the sneakers as a piece of art, as a collectible. You can buy $2000 paintings on your wall that no one’s going to see but you, and you can buy a pair of $600 sneakers, wear them, show the world your art, and put them out your shelf and look at them. It’s like, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A lot of people don’t understand. In some communities, Jordan represents way more than just a basketball player. It’s hip-hop, fashion, culture, and hopes and dreams. He represents this rag-to-riches story... I’m just trying to get a universal approach to it where anyone can go and empathize with why someone would want them.
“I was definitely trying to at least start a dialogue of how do we start redefining what it means to be a man and end the cycle of violence.”
Absolutely. You spoke a little bit about commodity fetishism and hypermasculinity; what was the main point you wanted your audiences to take away from watching Kicks?
I wanted to illustrate both those ideas and question them. At the end of the movie, I really want people to take away that there is a way to end the cycle of violence and we have to find that way. The tragic thing for me is that the kids in Kicks are born into this world—they’ve inherited this community that generations before us created. That’s not fair, but they still have to navigate all these social habits of what it means to be a man even if you’re not ready to be a man. A lot of that has to do with violence. I was definitely trying to at least start a dialogue of how do we start redefining what it means to be a man and end the cycle of violence. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but Brandon, on his quest to get the shoes back, the holy grail, he loses everything. He loses his friendship, he puts people in danger... We also have a part speaking to this outside and underdog kid who’s aware he isn’t cool and tries to do something about it by following the trends or what he thinks other people think is cool. It’s not something that we should be teaching the youth and we should definitely be conveying the idea that you can be yourself. If you like Yeezys, you like Yeezys. If you like the KDs, you like the KDs. Just do you and don’t feel pressured and go to great lengths to impress everyone else.
The cast of Kicks.
And you mentioned it’s a quest story—the Holy Grail type of thing. It makes me think about Chris Booker and The Seven Basic Plots; it’s a book that talks about how there’s only seven plots in the world and we keep retelling reiterations of the same story over and over again. So, as a storyteller, how do you keep Kicks feeling like a fresh story when there’s only so many plots to be told?
Yeah, you can also look at literature and it’s like, everything’s been done. I think that it’s how you do it now that matters. With hip-hop even, sometimes it’s a mashup of different genres and sampling this and sampling that... I think the term original is—I mean, you’re kind of like your influencers... You kind of just do you and let other people label you. I don’t know. I try not to think about it too much—I just try to be truthful.
So you talked about influences; what films have been the most influential personally? And what did you look towards for inspiration for Kicks?
There’s a lot [laughs]… I feel inspired by the structure and the feeling of adventure. I was like, “How can I find that feeling in Oakland?” There’s also Boyz in the Hood… And looking at Kicks, there’s definitely a lot of European influences I’d say. Andrea Arnold is this filmmaker who made this movie called Fish Tank I was watching a lot. La Haine is a '90s movie, French film, that’s one of my favorite films. It’s great... tonally and something that really inspired.
I was also inspired by something really abstract, but Italian Neorealism. Specifically The Bicycle Thieves—it’s this family that lost a bike and the story is that they’re trying to get their bike back. And even though it’s a world I knew nothing about, I still felt empathy towards the characters, so I was pretty fascinated with how we’re able to do that and how I could apply that to Kicks and still make it a universal story that people can understand.
What was the creative process like when you were making Kicks from start to finish? Conceptualizing it, working with the cast—how did everything go down?
It took about a year to get through a complete draft I could stand by for the script. And then once we started to work with the producers, Animal Kingdom, we had another year of developing and trying to put the financing together which is insanely difficult 'cause it’s a very non-Hollywood film... this movie is about all people of color and the actors are largely unknown teenagers. I quickly learned it is hard to get financing for a story like this. But then Focus World picked it up and now here we are and I get people to get to see it. So shout out to Focus World for believing.
I mean, the creative process is really just absorbing as much as I could. I mean, I listened to music while I was writing. It was all kind of already there because it was so personal. It was a fun creative process... I can say it was great working with and finding the cast. That really stands out the most as far as meeting the kids and casting at local youth groups. I met one of the kids that plays Ryan, his name is Dont'e Clark from Richmond. He taught spoken word at the youth group and he actually shared his stories with me and that was very inspiring. He actually helped write some of the voice-over rap lyrics. It was very symbiotic in the process when I started casting the film.
What was it like when the film was completed and showing it at Tribeca? How was that experience?
It was pretty nerve-wracking [laughs]. But it was pretty incredible to experience that. It took so many years out of my life and many people’s lives to get the film made and to get to that point. Sitting in the audience and actually hearing the reaction that you hoped you would get, but weren’t sure you would get, and actually meeting and talking to people who were from the Bay or had similar experiences and having people be like, “That was amazing! I could relate to that,” or, “I went through something similar.” It was like, wow, I’m actually connecting and starting a conversation with an audience. I think that’s the most rewarding part about filmmaking. Tribeca definitely was a pretty surreal place to premiere for my first feature.
“Because it’s true—you can uneducate hate, but it’s hard the older you get to uneducate that hate and anger.”
Yeah, congratulations, by the way! That’s huge. And I think with what you were saying about it being all people of color in the cast and it not being a stereotypical Hollywood film—that’s huge and it’s representative.
Thank you. And yeah, New York definitely fucks with it [laughs]. Like, of course New York gets this.
I noticed in the trailer that there seems to be this recurring motif of space and the astronaut and isolation. What does space symbolize in the film?
Everyone thought it was crazy to have an astronaut… For me, it functions on two levels. The first inspiration was visually. For me, there’s an association with innocence and imagination and boyhood. [There’s] this trope in boyhood storytelling, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up? An astronaut.” It kind of parallels that character’s loneliness and being an outsider and feeling like you don’t belong. Something that’s really sad about being an astronaut in the real world, hanging out, is like you’re clearly an outsider. So I kind of reflect that...
There’s [also] some weird space in hip-hop where [space and hip-hop] converge. Lil Wayne made the Space Jam Martian mixtape and Pharrell has BBC with the astronaut logo. I look back on it now and maybe I was just stimulated by astronauts and hip-hop? I don’t know. But, metaphorically in the story, a lot of people have actually had different interpretations and so I’m like, “If you interpreted it your way, take it, save that.” But to me, it was another a metaphor for machismo or this idea for him to become a man. He kind of starts off as this guardian angel first, after these big moments of decision that the character makes. And because it’s the idea of being a man is flawed, it’s bringing back a darker past. It’s definitely a metaphor; hopefully it’s effective.
Why did this story have to be told?
Being in this weird element—like the climate in general of the country, the culture violence—it’s just really important to address it all. I found it really important to at least start changing the narrative about how we can speak to the youth really and how we can get them socially engaged. Because it’s true—you can uneducate hate, but it’s hard the older you get to uneducate that hate and anger. So, for me personally, I don’t think stories like these are told enough and I think that hopefully there’s a cultural shift to stories about marginalized groups of people… Kind of like Dope or like Boyz in the Hood; you can only point to two movies—that’s crazy! They all have a right to exist but there’s just so few movies that reflect the diversity and the culture. I think it’s important that that comes through.
I definitely looked back and thought, who did I look to when I was watching movies growing up? I didn’t watch Stand By Me and go like, “That actually looks like me.” I didn’t understand what that meant in the beginning—I liked [those movies] but it wasn’t for me. I guess that’s why this story needs to be told.
Catch our private screening of Kicks tomorrow, August 25, in San Francisco. Find out how to RSVP and receive a free gift bag from The Hundreds San Francisco with your ticket stub here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.