In the anticipated new film Kicks, Oakland is captured in scenes of both playful camaraderie and overstated grittiness. In one shot, best friends swerve on their bikes while drinking forty ounce beers. In another, a baby lays on a bed next to a loaded gun.
The movie, written and directed by Richmond native Justin Tipping, tells the story of a fifteen-year-old Richmond teen named Brandon (played by Jahking Guillory), who goes on a dangerous mission across Oakland to reclaim his stolen Air Jordan sneakers. Beautifully shot and strongly acted, Kicks offers sharp commentary on the dangers of consumerism for kids today. And throughout, Oakland offers the scenery.
“The East Bay is such a specific culture and it raises you in a way,” said Tipping, who was inspired by a personal experience getting jumped for his Nikes.
“For me, it was important that [the setting] feel like another character, and this being my first feature as a director, I wanted to write what I knew and a place that I understood and could be authentic too, even if it’s a harsh reality.”
But, like his Richmond protagonist who dares to venture into Oakland, Tipping seems to be peering into a world he is not entirely a part of — and the results are both evocative and volatile. Oakland, as portrayed in the film, offers a sense of forbiddenness and discovery. It’s exciting and suspenseful, but also feels like a sensationalized version of the violence that has bloodied the city’s reputation.
“Most of my friends are from Richmond, and that’s my stomping ground. As I got older, I got introduced to Oakland, but when I was fifteen, we weren’t sitting around on 32nd Street in Richmond like, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Oakland real quick?,’ said Tipping. “It’s two very different worlds.”
So, why make a movie that positions Oakland as the nexus of an underground culture where shoes, drugs, and sideshows reign supreme? With the Warriors’ winning streak, the Bay Area tech-boom, and Oakland popping up on “Best Places to Live in America” lists, more and more people are becoming interested in The Town.
But the Oakland that Tipping portrays in Kicks has nothing to do with those characteristics. Rather, it evokes other movies about inner city life, such as Boyz In The Hood and La Haine — the latter of which Tipping said served as a reference for the film. He seems to be grasping at a sense of regional authenticity, then peppering it with social critique.
“Oakland has a very deep, rich history and I think it’s easier for anyone who watches this movie to say, ‘Oh, Oakland, Warriors, whatever,’ but I feel like Richmond mirrors it as a sister-city,” said Tipping. “They were both port cities with good and bad parts. The bad parts are there because the economy left and systemic racism flourished. There was a beauty in both cities that I wanted to show.”
However, the deep history that Tipping spoke of didn’t make it into the film. At its core, this is a movie about the correlation between modern-day consumerism and social status. In other words, the story of what happens when a young Black boy gets hold of sneakers he shouldn’t be able to afford. But the film focuses so tightly on that narrative that the social context — industrial downsizing, wide-scale poverty, racial injustice — is left out. So, Kicks becomes a playful experiment in young Black masculinity simply set against the backdrop of the East Bay. And that can be a perilous undertaking, considering the fine line between perpetuating stereotypes about inner city life and elucidating them.
We never quite buy Brandon’s struggle because there aren’t enough conflicting forces to make it real. He tells us in a voiceover that he is picked on, and we see his dingy shoes. But there are no parents, no teachers, and no women. Even Brandon’s poverty — a deserted house with tall weeds — isn’t all that convincing. Instead, the viewer gets a rambunctious view of male youth in their own world of sneaker-driven bravado and fatal risks.
“The violence in the movie is a direct reflection of what young men are taught and how they define manhood,” said Tipping.
“Just looking back, why would you be called a ‘pussy’ if you cried? It’s also how you talk about girls, and in Kicks, it may be off-putting but it was a reality. The other aspect I wanted to explore was how hyper-masculinity crosses paths with the dark side of capitalism and you start fetishizing commodities, and that’s why there’s sneaker violence.”
At the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Kicks, an audience member asked Tipping about the film’s lack of central female characters. The handful of girls in the movie serve the primary purpose of arguing with their male counterparts or flirting with them. In our interview, Tipping said he told his actresses not to be submissive and to have the last word in these tiffs. But I was left unsatisfied on that front. As a Black woman from the East Bay, I know that the girls here are just as conflicted and complex as the men they argue with.
But for all of its grittiness, the film is gorgeous — as Guillory rides his bike with his ringlet curls blowing in the wind. Guillory’s face is sharp and angled, and his eyes give way to an innocent, precocious spirit that carries most of the movie. He appears to be African American, but also ethnically ambiguous, which is perhaps a nod to Bay Area multiculturalism. There’s also a recurring image of an astronaut floating in space, a magical realist element that may represent Brandon’s conscience, or his need to escape his harsh reality.
Guillory finds some of his best scenes with Hayward’s own Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, House of Cards), who gives a stirring performance as Marlon, the wise uncle with a criminal past who both lures Brandon into a world of violence and warns him against it. It’s these scenes, and the lushness of the film’s visual design, that may save it from becoming just another cinematic primer into inner-city life, fulfilling Tipping’s vision of creating an ethereal, sobering portrait of a specific Bay Area adolescence.