/ 14 June 2023

One MOVIE, one Take: The origin of sneaker culture in ‘Air’

Screenshot 2023 06 14 At 19.30.00

In a basketball world dominated by Converse and Adidas shoes, before Nike brought the world its famous silhouette, there was a relatively unknown university-level basketball player whose name and likeness would go down in history — Michael Jordan. 

The plot of Air is not a completely unknown tale, but a contextual tale of how the Air Jordan became one of the most successful — and controversial — shoes of all time, setting up sneaker culture as we know it today. 

Nike’s cocksure co-founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) knew it and Nike’s marketing head Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) knew it — Nike was in trouble, trailing far behind other basketball sneakers and in danger of being relegated to being only a running brand. 

With half a million dollars budgeted to endorse a young, up-and-coming basketball athlete, Nike heads to the 1984 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft in search of a new star. 

One must remember that Air is a biopic (unlike the 2020 docu-series The Last Dance, which follows Jordan’s career) and some dramatic liberties are taken. At the end of the day, Air is all about the business decisions behind the deal between Nike and the rookie player Jordan (Damian Young). 

Affleck, who also directs the movie, combs through, confirms or dispels some of the many myths surrounding Air Jordan sneakers. 

Nike rebels against the NBA’s “51% rule”, which forced shoes worn on the court to be primarily white. This was part of why the red, black and white Air Jordans stood out, earning the brand regular $5 000 fines per game. Although it’s debatable how often Jordan actually wore the shoes during official games, it makes for great marketing.

Air also reveals to audiences Jordan’s preference for signing with Adidas over Nike and his desire for a shiny car as part of the deal with the latter.

However, marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro’s (Matt Damon) willingness to bet his entire career on a single athlete and his visit to the Jordan household are the film’s creative licence. 

Air dispels the widely believed story that Nike’s superstar shoe designer, the late Peter Moore, coined the name Air Jordan. Although Moore designed the sneakers’ iconic silhouette, Air shows us that Jordan’s short-tempered agent David Falk (Chris Messina) came up with the name, inspired by the way the player soared through the air. 

Although we as the viewers still live in the shadow of the rise of the mighty Air Jordan, there is something about the rookie-to-hero true story of Jordan and his signature black, red and white sneakers that feeds our appetites to know more. 

The film is fast-paced, like a basketball game, with quick back-and-forth dialogues and swishy 1980s montages throughout the many stages of the deal. 

But where is Jordan when said deals are going down? 

Even though he is at the centre of Nike’s pursuit of basketball greatness, his presence — or lack thereof — in Air shows him to be an inconsequential figure, instead of a future basketball GOAT. 

Air is the story of two forces who come together but it favours Nike’s inner world over Michael Jordan’s agency and his own decision-making. 

Viola Davis’s MVP performance as Jordan’s mother Deloris shows us it’s not just the shoe that made the star but the person who wore them. However, her portrayal makes it seem as if Nike had to jump through hoops to access her son, and she did talked on his behalf. 

At the end of the day, the film has set a precedent for films about (relatively niche) shoes. Its formula is 80% fact, back-and-forth business deals and the relentless pursuit of something great. 

Air exudes a sort of contagious hustle in Nike’s pursuit of Jordan’s “royal airness” which would eventually lead to the Air Jordan brand having a value of $5.2 billion last year. 

What would be great is if Air could be a catalyst for more movies about iconic footwear, such as Vans, Converse (which Nike owns today), Doc Martens and maybe even Crocs, because every shoe has the ability to be a vehicle for storytelling of a larger subculture.

Air is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.