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Sneakers that drove a culture explored in ‘Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1’

A still image from "Unbanned: The Legend of

A still image from "Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1" which tells the story how the iconic shoe sparked a social and cultural revolution. Credit: “Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1”

It’s gotta be the shoes.

If you doubt that famous old Nike advertising tagline, “Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1,” drives home the point over 90 minutes of nostalgia-drenched, occasionally hyperbolic tribute to the most storied sneaker in the history of sneakers.

“Air Jordan” rode the rising tide of Michael Jordan’s basketball career, pop culture ubiquity and expensive sneaker mania to mid-1980s footwear superstardom, with echoes into the current century, now long after Jordan stopped playing.

Director Dexton Deboree sought to harness it all in the film, which premieres Friday night at the Beacon Theatre as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, with additional public showings on Saturday and Sunday nights. (The plan after that is a limited theatrical run, followed by further distribution through video on demand.)

“There is this almost religious affinity for this thing, and that is the thing that drove me to tell the story,” Deboree said. “What is that really about? If it’s not just about the NBA, and it’s not, and it’s not just about the sneaker being cool, and it’s not, then what is it? I think the film kind of tells you that.”

Among those who weigh in are Jordan himself; his old advertising co-star, Spike Lee; Nike executives, including founder Phil Knight; musicians, including Chuck D; actors, including Michael B. Jordan; and past and present NBA commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver.

Deboree also made it a point to interview younger voices from the worlds of fashion and music to drive home the cross-cultural, cross-generational influence of the shoe.

“I had this personal fascination with this idea (Jordan) is the greatest basketball player who has lived, to date,” the director said. “So I get that, and that’s an element of it, but that’s not true of everybody. There are lots of non-basketball fans who connect to the shoe.”

The title refers to the murky history of the shoe’s “banning” from the NBA which helped its popularity skyrocket. Stern is the key witness on that subject, and approaches it with his usual wry cynicism. Deboree called his sitdown with Stern “profound.”

Speaking of “profound,” Deboree had a to walk a fine line in allowing interview subjects to wax poetic about what it meant to them, without losing sight of the fact everyone is talking about expensive amalgamations of leather and rubber.

“Look, I had people tell me things that I didn’t put in the film that go across the board, from personal to spiritual to racial to everything,” he said. “It’s fascinating, but I wanted to touch on it because it is an element that authentically came out and didn’t want to dump it on people or force it or make people feel like there was any kind of agenda.

“Race is definitely a factor, no question, and I felt like it was an obligation to tell that side of it, but I tried to keep it balanced. At the end of the day, I want people to be moved by it, but I also want people to have fun. It’s still a shoe.”

Deboree used a relatively small amount of Jordan interview footage, for fear his presence would overwhelm the storyline.

“His star is so bright that it outshines everything in his orbit, so it was important for me in the beginning and all the way through that the story is about AJ1,” the director said. “It’s not another story about MJ.”

The film does not shy away from the spate of violence in that era associated with people trying to steal Air Jordans and other expensive sneakers, sometimes off victims’ feet.

Deboree, who has done advertising work for Jordan Brand, secured footage in a variety of places, including a box Nike had delivered to the University Oregon in 1977 that never had been opened before.

The 44-year-old Deboree was at an age of peak impressionability when Air Jordan 1 came out in 1984, and thus is well-positioned to guide the conversation.

“This might sound a little over-the-top,” he said, “but I think this shoe literally had a spirit. It was going to happen and it was going to make its presence known to the world and it was going to fulfill a destiny and it didn’t really matter who got in the way or wasn’t on board with it, and it showed.

“I mean, MJ was resistant to it and Phil (Knight) was resistant to it. It wasn’t this perfect plan that everybody set down and put together, which they do now all the time, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

“There were all these unlikely circumstances coming together. I think there is an element of destiny at play, where this thing needed to happen and it needed to have this impact on all these people.”

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