at the Sideshow [image source: http://www.focusfeatures.com/kicks]
Not long after I saw Justin Tipping’s debut feature film Kicks, I somehow came across a whole pile of those “cinema is over” and “cinema is dead” pronouncements from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and others. Aside from the fact that these pronouncements were all made at times when these iconic filmmakers had new films to market, it struck me as interesting that their particular generation of filmmakers were lamenting the current stage of filmmaking precisely when new filmmakers from outside of the traditional filmmaking demographic were finally getting their work out there for all to see. I mean, film artists like Tipping, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins and Amma Assante, to name a few. The great Kelly Reichardt has just been the focus of a huge BFI retrospective and symposium. Yes, these are not the traditional “white male” directors, but surely by now we should be past the stage of expecting that all film directors are white men. Plenty of them are, and that’s fine, but not all. What this means is that other kinds of stories can be told, new ideas are coming out and this can only enrich cinema and take it further. I suppose I was just a bit surprised that Scorsese doesn’t see a link between his early film-making, films like Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and films like Kicks by Justin Tipping.
I was very fortunate to be able to host a master class by Tipping at Central St. Martins, to the BA and MA students studying film. Tipping had many interesting things to say, which I’ll get to, but first I want to give a mini review of the film.
It is a deceptively simple story of a teenage boy on the cusp of young adult hood, but very self-conscious about his scrawny physique and lack of masculine identity when he compares himself to his friends. He comes to believe that the best way of gaining status in his social circle is to have a truly desirable pair of kicks – sneakers – and after some effort requires a pair. However, these become the focus of local bullies, and he is soon relieved of them. This sparks a rage in him that he barely understands, as he goes off on an increasingly violent quest to retrieve his precious shoes and assert himself in the world.
Robert de Niro, who liked the film, is quoted as describing KICKS as a “portrait of a young man drowning in the expectations of machismo.” The film addresses notions of status and power as well as masculinity, and it shows how these ideas are embedded at a young age. The film makes us question these toxic narratives of masculinity, not only as they exist within the smaller circle of Bay Area teens portrayed in the film, but within the wider culture which we all inhabit.
KICKS has been compared to de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and it certainly has an affinity with that neorealist film classic, but what is interesting to me, and what’s really different, is the commodity fetishism of the shoes. It’s very recognisable, but also very disturbing. The shoes don’t just mean shoes; like the bicycle in Bicycle Thieves, the shoes represent a whole way of life and position in the world and sense of self-esteem. However, unlike the bicycle, the shoes have no utility, they are simply commodity fetish. Tipping’s film does an excellent job of really conveying to the viewer the real importance of the shoes, and their core necessity in the life of the protagonist Brandon (Jahking Guillory), as well as their function within the wider social circle – while never detouring from the stark reality of the complete uselessness of the shoes and their inability to actually give any concrete benefit to Brandon or anybody else. Which is the tragedy of our times.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between three friends, Brandon and his bigger and somewhat more self-assured buddies Albert and Rico (magnificently played by Christopher Jordan Wallace and Christopher Meyer). The friendship is tested many times during the story, and the dialogue is well-written and well directed, with an authenticity that almost hurts as we see the three talking and joshing around and constantly on the edge of saying and expressing what they really want to say and really feel, yet always just holding back.
Another very interesting aspect of the film is the “villain,” Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), a local thug who steals the shoes. Siriboe, who is excellent and definitely an actor to watch out for, soon reveals Flaco to have a surprising motivation for the theft and the character is much more well-rounded, interesting and (dare I say it) even sympathetic, than one expects. The violence in the film, which is sparingly and effectively used, is never gratuitous and never justified. One of the great set pieces of the film is a “sideshow,” a big gathering of young people on a vacant lot, where they spin their cars, drink and smoke weed and show off. It is a buoyant, exuberant social scene, but one which can turn ugly in a split second. The great Mahershala Ali appears as Brandon’s uncle and the father of a clan of young men who are just getting into a way of life that may not end well. Again, Ali’s character is multidimensional and although the part is small, it makes a powerful impact. Altogether the film demonstrates convincingly the limited lives framed by poverty and lack of opportunity, where aspirations are small, local and potentially deadly. Figures of authority – Brandon’s mother (who clearly sees a different path for her son), teachers, police and so forth – are not seen in the film at all.
The film boasts beautiful camerawork by Michael Ragen, that preserves the necessary realism of the film but at the same time aetheticizes it, without prettifying the conditions. If I have one aesthetic criticism, it is that slow motion is used a little bit too much; in my view it would have been better if the slow motion appeared only in the last third of the film. However, this doesn’t spoil the film experience at all.
In the master class Tipping was very generous with his time and shared many insights with the students, who clearly appreciated the opportunity to meet the director. Tipping revealed some very interesting things. Although the film appears to be about the African-American community in the Bay Area, Tipping points out that the story is much more universal, just as in the area is quite multi-ethnic. Tipping, who has a Filipino heritage, grew up in the Bay Area and elements of the films are semi-autiobiographical. The production held very open-minded casting calls and was prepared to cast actors of any race who appeared right for the part. However, after exhaustive searching through youth groups and many casting calls, he has ended up with a predominantly African-American cast of uniform excellence. It is interesting to understand that the film is not specifically about an “African-American cultural situation” but is deeper and broader than that.
The film’s subject matter is close to his heart. Tipping wrote the film while doing his MFA at the American Film Institute. Once he won the Student Academy Award and the Director¹s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award with his short film NANI, the opportunity was there to finally realise Kicks. But it took time, luck and a lot of support from people who were willing to ignore the prevailing “wisdom” that films about Black people (or made by anyone other than a white male) would never “sell.” I think we are all aware how unwise that “wisdom” is. We want and need films that offer us a variety and range of voices and visions.
Tipping hopes that the film will make a contribution to opening up the question about hyper- masculinity in contemporary society. Kicks is a powerful film and certainly one which young people would do well to see. Unfortunately, in the United States the film received an R rating simply because, in his quest for authenticity, it uses “bad language.” The irony of this is hilarious yet sick-making: the film is only rarely violent, and the violence as mentioned is not gratuitous, unlike the vast majority of films which receive much lower ratings. Luckily the film is out on streaming media, which completely bypasses the rating system which is purely for cinematic exhibition. However, it does mean that the film will not be shown in schools and youth clubs, which to me is very shortsighted and unfortunate.
Hopefully the film will reach its intended audience, and hopefully the British audience will find the film and take it on board. It’s on iTunes and all usual streaming outlets.