Teenage Brandon (Jahking Guillory) lives in Oakland, where he spends his time hanging around with his two friends Rico (Christopher Meyer), who loves to get high but still manages to be athletic, and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), who is not athletic, but boasts he can get any woman he wants, despite all evidence to the contrary. However, Brandon understandably wonders if there is more to life than this, and fantasises about moving out into space where he could get some peace and quiet and time to be himself - down here in the real world, the big social signifier of your status isn't how smart or sporty you are, but what shoes you wear, and he has a seriously unimpressive pair on his feet. If only he could afford something better...
Shoes were highly important in the hierarchy of the world of Kicks, a debut feature after some short work from director Justin Tipping at a time when the not only African American were gaining standing, but films from black directors all over the world were. Thus it was perhaps a little difficult for the lower profile movies such as this to make their presence felt in such a busy market, unfair as that may have been, the filmmakers had to have some hook to draw the potential audience in, be that a great performance or two, or a concept that was hard to ignore; even a stylistic choice was going to make waves with the right people, should they take the chance to see the productions, and from some angles this looked like yet another tale of urban strife.
We had seen a lot of those, telling us of how an inner city existence was a dead end one, not exclusive to black filmmakers' narratives either, so what did Tipping have in his favour? Though there were flaws here, there was nothing wrong with his handling of his material (scripted with Joshua Beirne-Golden), which took a gritty subject and applied a dreamy, though only intermittently surreal, approach to it. The most blatant example of that was the astronaut who accompanies Brandon on his adventure, donning the full outfit but standing by as a literally silent partner, a symbol of his subconscious that he is always aware of as he gets further and further in over his head with his antagonist.
The problem Brandon has is that he did manage to get his hands on the trainers he most sought, a red and black basketball shoes with official endorsement (there doesn't seem to be any product placement intended, but you never know, and rendering them the objects of desire can't hurt their sales). He didn't steal them, thankfully, but he does buy them at a knock-down price from a dodgy geezer selling them from out of the back of his van; no matter, he has his status now among his peers for having the correct footwear. Or he does until local lowlife Flaco (Kofi Siirboe) and his gang descend upon him soon after the purchase and relieve him of his prized possessions, with brutal force too. He must now weigh up his options, should he accept the humiliation and get on with life, or does he try to retrieve them?
That latter choice could be tricky, as Flaco is one mean dude, having made a name for himself as someone not to be trifled with, and Siriboe initially comes across like the sort of actor landed with the tough guy villain that any number of his peers could play in his sleep. However, then we find out Flaco has a young son, and suddenly he does not seem like the cliché we thought, he obviously dotes on the child, yet is training him to be a version of himself when he grows up, underlining the troublesome lack of decent role models in this community. Yes, the boy will doubtless be able to stand up for himself, but do the locals really need another violent criminal inflicted on the neighbourhood? Texture like that lifted Kicks from the run of the mill, and we can also see there are no strong female role models either, so for Brandon his mother is never seen, and the only older man is his uncle (Mahershala Ali) who gives him terrible advice about how to live his life - be more violent, essentially. You could argue the females here were functionally written at best, and that would be valid, but this was very much from the male perspective, and could prove thought provoking to an impressionable audience, in a good way. Lots of hip-hop on the soundtrack, suggesting those role models were now the rappers.
KICKS will be available on digital download from 22nd May 2017.