I often wonder which black movies get turned down and why. Because there are a few persistent narratives that get retold over and over by different filmmakers and different actors. Meanwhile, other narratives--those that aren't aligned with the predominant cinematic image of black life that makes white audiences comfortable--too often get shuffled to the margins (or never see the light of day, I presume). For instance, the coming-of-age story, led usually by a group of young black men who come into their adulthood through traumatic encounters with gun violence and other crimes, is a popular trope in Hollywood. KICKS, the first feature-length film from director and co-writer Justin Tipping, is no exception to this rule.
And while this isn't to dismiss that this is a sad truth of a black life; it's just not the definitive truth as black is not a monolith. But in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, when countless young black lives are being introduced to crime when faced with their own mortality at the hands of others, KICKS is sharply indicative of an alarming image that plays on loop in news headlines. Jahking Guillory stars as 15-year-old Brandon, a young student a little left of the popular crowd, who has set his sights on a pair of Jordans that will undoubtedly elevate his social status both in the school hallways and in his Oakland neighborhood. And he will do anything to get them.
As it turns out, getting them isn't the challenge (a roundaway guy was selling them for cheap out of his trunk). But immediately after he flosses the sneakers around his neighborhood, he gets jumped for them at the basketball court by a group of guys who leave him bloodied and barefoot. Rather than cower in a corner, for the first time in his life Brandon decides to stand up for himself--at whatever cost.
Thus sets up the conflict of the narrative, a surge into manhood, apparently without the assistance of a father and even a mother (though she's alluded to in the film, we never actually see her--rounding out the stereotype of young black men having to grow up on their own). Tipping manages to skirt the traditional narrative by incorporating a sci-fi accent by way of a lingering astronaut designed to serve as Brandon's conscious. The motive isn't entirely clear, but I can only assume that our young protagonist, whose interests outside of the pair of Jordans are apparently nil, may actually be a lowkey sci-fi nerd. Too bad Tipping didn't play that up more as blerd culture is prominent right now (and deserves more representation on screen).
Nevertheless, KICKS should be praised for introducing audiences to a virtually unknown and impressive young black male cast. Beyond Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace (son of the late rapper, Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace) and Christopher Meyer play Brandon's ride-or-die sidekicks, who provide much needed humbling and support for Brandon once he attempts to play by the rules of the streets and puts both himself and his crew in danger.
Obviously, KICKS is about much more than a pair of sneakers. It's about manhood, growing up in the hood, and the inner struggles you don't see played out on the news: neighborhood bullies, the fight for hood domination, and colorism on the streets. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but I'm interested to see what Tipping does next.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)
KICKS is in theaters Friday. Watch the trailer.
Watch the trailer: