Score: 5 out of 5 

THIS movie…where do I even begin? I’ve been waiting for this one for a hot minute. I remember watching the trailer months back and immediately knowing I needed to see it as soon as it came out. Over the last few months I’d search for any new info on this movie and there was never much but just enough for my hype levels to grow. A hype I can liken to waiting months for those brand new retro Jordans to drop (only to, of course, take another L at 6 am and have to pay resell because the sneaker game is all sorts of messed up, but that’s another conversation entirely). Why was I so hyped? Well this movie feels like it was practically made for someone like me. It takes place in and was filmed in Oakland, it’s about sneakers, it has a cast made up entirely of people of color, and it has some nice hip-hop flavors to it too (Biggie’s son is even in it!). I’m trying to contain my excitement as I write this intro but this movie spoke to me on so many levels, it lived up to every expectation I had and then some.



The story follows a young high school aged boy from Richmond named Brandon. Brandon is an underdog in a hundred different ways; he can’t ball because he’s too short, he can’t get girls because he’s too young and timid, and worst of all he’s forced to wear the same tattered white Nikes to school while his friends rock fresh J’s because his mom can’t afford to buy him anything nicer. It’s not much of a spoiler to say Brandon finds a way to scrape his way towards his most coveted prize, a pair of Bred Air Jordan 1’s, the Black and Red Ones, the OGs. Unfortunately for Brandon, an undersized young kid walking around the ghetto, there are bigger fish around salivating at the chance to beat his ass and take his shoes, which is exactly what happens. A story as old as time!…yet one that is rarely depicted on the silver screen.

Before Liz and I drove to Grand Lake to watch this, I asked my brother and sister if they wanted to come watch. I explained the basic premise to them only for there to be a pause followed by a “…that’s it?” But that’s the beauty of it! Obviously there’s much more going on below the surface but essentially this is a film about a boy who has his shoes stolen. Why isn’t that worthy of the silver screen? We have more movies than I can count about 20-something year old straight white couples trying to find love in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. Why isn’t a movie about a black teen getting robbed and dealing with the social pressures of the ghetto deserving of the spotlight? Well let me tell you, stories like that are deserving of the spotlight and this movie is great proof of that.


“Levels to this Shit”

Before I get down in the trenches with this, a word on how I’ll be structuring my analysis. I felt like a recurring theme here was, as Meek Mill says, “its levels to this shit, levels to this shit.” (shout-out to Meek, still think you’re a better rapper than Drake). Another way of putting it for you more academic folks, “Onions have layers. Ogres have layers…You get it? We both have layers.” I think I pulled that from Confucius on ethics or Aristotle on physics or something like that, someone check my sources. Anyway, this movie has a hell of alot of layers and because of that I’ll often be moving between analyzing the surface versus the deeper implications. This may sound obvious as any review worth anything should be able to analyze things beyond the surface but you’ll get what I mean as you read on.

The Plot: 

Let’s talk a bit the plot. As I mentioned, there’s more going on here than just a story about a boy getting beat up for his shoes. On the surface this is a really authentic, gritty, and occasionally humorous movie about Brandon’s quest to get his shoes back. It follows the standard narrative structure: Exposition (background info, character set-up, funny jokes) -> Complication (the shoes get stolen, the quest to get them back)-> Climax (all the action of the later act)-> Resolution (not gonna spoil it), or whatever graph structure you’re familiar with. Clearly it’s a little more complicated than that, but that pretty much covers it. If you only look at the movie like this, through what’s presented on the surface, I still think it’s an enjoyable movie. It’s still something refreshing that you don’t see often. What makes the movie special though is that there’s so much other stuff implicitly going on that grabs our attention, stuff that takes a little more effort to notice. Layers, people, layers.


Social Pressures:

This brings me to my first level of deeper analysis. This is a great movie about the social pressures that come with being a young male growing up in a chaotic environment. While it’s true that Brandon doesn’t necessarily have the worst environment; he’s in school, his mom seems to provide for him (except shoes), he’s relatively safe (never been in a fight), and his friends seem like decent people, he still has plenty to deal with. All of our problems and the social pressures we face, including Brandon’s, are relative to what’s around us. Relative to Brandon, his friends always have the coolest Jordans while he’s stuck wearing his tattered Nikes everyday. Naturally he covets those bred Air Jordan 1’s more than anything else in life. I can relate to that, while I wasn’t ever stuck wearing old shoes with holes in them as a kid, I never could convince my parents to buy me any retro Jordans. When I was really young any shoes more than like $50 were too expensive, as I got older any shoes above $80-100 were too much. Meanwhile at school it was like the Italian Renaissance of fresh kicks! I guess all friends had parents who were sneakerheads because they’d show up to school with new Jordans every few weeks. I mean I wasn’t out there in crocs, I had my shell toe Adidas superstars and K-Swiss classics, but I definitely wasn’t turning any heads.

If you’re not into sneakers like that this may all sound ridiculous but it’s about more than just the shoes. Obviously one half of it is actually liking the shoes themselves because they have incredibly iconic silhouettes, colorways, and designs. We have Peter Moore, Tinker Hatfield, and the rest of the Nike design team to thank for that (if you’re interested in that story I highly recommend watching the 30 for 30: Sole Man on Netflix). The other part of becoming obsessed with sneakers is the fact that they’re more than just shoes, they’re status symbols and a part of a whole cultural nexus. They’re a part of hip-hop culture, street wear culture, basketball culture, etc. Of course this creates a huge demand for shoes that give the person wearing them a feeling of being on top of the world. And yes, this is consumerism and capitalism at its finest but when you’re walking down the street in some fresh 11s with the icy soles, who cares?! I’m rambling but the point is that Brandon wants these shoes because he wants to fit in but also stand out. When he sees them on the feet of the guy in the hallway he looks entranced and says something like “If I had those, no one could fuck with me…” (or something like that), an example that this is about more than just shoes.  All of the nexus categories I mentioned earlier intersect greatly with Brandon’s identity which serves to amplify what the shoes mean to him. We know he likes hip-hop given that he’s always freestyling, he seems to like basketball as he and his friends are constantly playing it, and while he’s not rocking Margiela or Rick Owens he definitely has his own little aesthetic going that the shoes would bolster. I can relate to that, I like all of those things as well and maybe that’s why this movie resonated deeply with me.


Coming of Age:

Another thing this movie has going for it that I enjoyed is that it’s a great depiction of cycles of violence through the context of a coming of age story. The whole social pressures aspect comes into play here too. Like I said, Brandon doesn’t seem to come from the absolute bottom but we see constant reminders that he still lives in a violent place. We see the assault that occurred at Brandon’s school, the improvised sidewalk memorials to those slain on the corners, constant gun-toting, Brandon’s own beating when his shoes are stolen, etc. We also know that this is normal to him, this is what he’s grown up with. We see evidence of this when Brandon talks about how he’s only never been in a fight because he’s too fast and what he dreams of is being an astronaut so he can float away and be at peace. He says this all so calmly and without hesitation because it’s simply his reality, he’s been running since birth. I don’t know if this stood out to me because it was the director’s intention or just because I could identify with it.

Growing up in Oakland you end up seeing some shit throughout the years. Despite my parents giving my siblings and I a safe home and every opportunity, they couldn’t shield us from everything. I remember in elementary school we had a security guard instead of counselors and one time she had my friends and I help her chase a kid down and handcuff him. I was glad to see him go at the time because he was one of a few terrifying school bullies who had beaten up some of my friends but I didn’t realize then that this was kind of a messed up event. I remember some of my 8th grade friends not being able to walk the “graduation” stage because they were caught smoking and drinking in the bathrooms. I remember never being allowed to wear blue or red shoes or clothing because of all the drive-bys and assaults that ended up being cases of mistaken identity. I remember having to call the ambulance because a car pulled up next to me on the sidewalk and the driver was hysterical because her husband in the back had been shot. I remember the cops pulling the guy’s blood soaked child out of the back seat, the guy died later that day. Chain snatching, street racing, underage prostitutes, robberies, all of it was normal and I saw it many times. Perhaps most chilling of all I remember chaperoning my brothers’ 4th or 5th grade field trip and on the walk to BART the kids were laughing about how on a recent school trip they had to walk the other way because a man across the street was being stabbed. These are kids, who knows if they were telling the truth, but either way this kind of stuff was just as normal to them as it was to me growing up. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that this kind of stuff isn’t normal to a lot of other people. Again, this is probably me projecting my own experiences onto this movie but I could see a lot of myself in Brandon. No, I didn’t skip class and go drink 40s with my friends but I did grow up with the same sort of numbness to the inner workings of this mad city.


“Can’t be a man if I let another take mine”

So we see the kind of world Brandon grew up in but we also see that there’s levels to this shit. I didn’t have it as bad as Brandon but Brandon and his friends don’t have it as bad as the characters they run into later in the film. Brandon and his friends really aren’t about that life the same way Flaco and his crew are, the same way his uncle is, or the same way his uncle’s friends are. Despite that, Brandon feels the need to prove himself and risk it all in order to get revenge and his shoes back. Why does he feel the need to do this? Social pressures. The savage beating he endured was videotaped and put online and even his own friends are roasting him for having his shoes taken. One of the pressures young men like Brandon feel in this environment is the need to “be a man.” We know this because one of the lines Brandon repeats in his freestyles is, “can’t be a man if I let another take mine.” This brings up the topic of gender identity and masculinity. Not only does Brandon feel disrespected, he feels emasculated. In some situations, like his, that can drive someone to feel the need to overcompensate and do something crazy. This is a huge part of what drives cycles of violence not just in the movie but in real life. People continually retaliate against one another even though they know this means they’ll have to live in constant worry of walking alone, alleyways, slow moving cars, etc. That’s how powerful the pressure to feel like a “man” was to Brandon, so powerful that it led him to risk his life and the life of his best friends. And you can see that this pressure doesn’t affect everyone the same way, Brandon’s friends think he’s insane. At one point they even turn their back on him because he goes off the deep end. They know they’re not about that life, they’re content with cutting their losses and moving on. This is obvious based on how tentative they are to follow Brandon into some trap house in Oakland, into a car heading for the sideshow, and towards a certain person’s house later in the movie. This is a world where people getting run over and killed doesn’t result in horror but laughs and a YouTube video of people making jokes at the scene. You can see how these cycles of violence perpetuate themselves, it’s like a rabbit hole that you never get out of. The events Brandon puts in motion elevate the stakes to the point to where there’s no turning back.

Another representation of cycles of violence is through the use of innocent youth and remorseful adults. One scene in particular that stands out occurs around the middle of the film when Brandon goes to his uncle’s house for help. While there, we see his uncle’s newborn child in bed next to a handgun. This in and of itself represents cycles of violence too as this impressionable young mind is growing up around gang members and handguns within reach. Moments before this scene we see Brandon asking his uncle, a remorseful adult, for help dealing with his shoe problem. I’ve been saying there’s levels to this shit and the uncle represents the deepest level, beyond even that of Flaco and his gang. The uncle is one of the lucky few who experienced the cycle of violence and was able to make it out alive. He represents the only possibility of redemption that someone who chooses to go down Flaco’s (and seemingly Brandon’s) path can have. On one side we have the newborn child, a symbol of innocence and a blank slate. On the other side we have the uncle, someone who has been through it all and is trying to keep Brandon from going down the same path. In the middle we have Brandon himself struggling to make the decision to either back out before things get out of hand or taking the handgun and continuing on his quest for revenge.

Yet another symbol of youthful innocence comes from an unlikely source, Flaco. Well ok, not Flaco himself, but his son. This was another great plot choice the writer made. While there are clear protagonists and antagonists, they managed to still find a way to ground Flaco and make us feel for him to a certain extent. He may be a horrible person with an almost non-existent conscience but he’s still a person. We see that everything Flaco does regarding Brandon’s shoes is for his kid. In fact, the only thing he seems to care about is his kid and that’s kind of touching. There’s a few stand out scenes I want to talk about in particular. First, we see Flaco playing basketball with his kid early on in the movie. It’s one of the first not-horrible things we see him do and it tells us there’s more to this character than just an asshole who assaults people for fun. Later we see the life Flaco’s son lives and can’t help but feel heartbroken. If Brandon and his friends aren’t from the absolute bottom, Flaco’s son definitely is. There’s a scene that almost felt like it could’ve been the music video for Kendrick Lamar’s Cartoons & Cereal (an underrated classic). Flaco orders his son to play with his toys and turn up the volume on his cartoons instead of allowing him to observe what his father is doing (“I wonder if you ever knew that you was a role model to me first…you told me ‘don’t be like me, just finish watching cartoons.’”) Lastly we have the end of this film, the real climax of it all. It’s killing me not to go into detail but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone reading this review. Let’s just say Flaco’s son saying the Spiderman shoes with the Velcro straps were all he wanted and Flaco telling him it’s about the principle of it all was downright depressing. If you watch the movie, which you should, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

So to wrap things up here, the story was fantastic. I know a large part of the reason why I think this is because I relate to the movie so much. I also realize the story probably won’t speak to most people the same way. If you’re someone reading this thinking you won’t like the movie because you don’t connect with it the same way, I urge you to please give it a chance because it’s still a great story on it’s own.

The Cinematography:

Next I want get a few words in regarding the cinematography. While not exactly “visually stunning” by regular standards, the movie was filmed beautifully. It’s not a beautiful movie but the material it’s depicting isn’t beautiful, in that way it sort of is beautiful because it accurately captures the griminess of it all. They managed to use the grittiness very artfully. For example, there’s a scene where Brandon is in his overgrown backyard messing with a Nerf gun and shooting at a reflection of himself in a broken mirror. Nothing about this is beautiful but it feels very genuine and artful. Speaking of reflections, I liked the use of them in this film with that mirror scene being just one example. Another example is the way we see Brandon’s reflection in the helmet of his astronaut companion, a figure I’ll get into later. I can’t say for certain what those reflections were supposed to represent, perhaps Brandon’s adolescent identity issues, but they were well used regardless. I also liked the use of lighting, specifically I remember the use of artificial bright lights at various indoor locations. There’s the pink of the young braided girl’s room, the flashes of red from Flaco’s house, the white natural lighting of Brandon’s room, etc. There’s also great use of slow-mo in this movie. I know slow-motion can get tiring after a while but it never felt out of place here. Slow-motion was used in some of my favorite scenes like the sideshow and the scenes of Brandon walking through his neighborhood which created an interesting dreamlike effect. The cinematography isn’t what I remember most about this film but it’s really good and they managed to create some truly creative and authentic feeling scenes.


The Script/The Acting:

In the interest of keeping this review from getting unbearable long I’ll talk about the script and acting in the same section. As to the former, there’s not much to be said but this isn’t because it wasn’t good. Much like the cinematography, this wasn’t some master class writing full of witty banter but that’s not the subject matter we’re dealing with so it’s hard to fault it for that. The script is pretty much perfect for what it’s trying to be, a realistic portrayal of how people interact in places like this. Nothing sounded out of place or fake or like it was trying too hard. I particularly liked the voiceover sections where Brandon is telling us his innermost desires, those were powerful moments.


As for the acting, I have a little more to say. I’ll start with Kofi Siriboe who plays Flaco. Apparently he was an extra in Straight Outta Compton (2015) and a bassist in Whiplash (2014). Unsurprisingly I don’t remember seeing him in either of those but good god was he noticeable here! First of all, this dude is huge. There’s a reason why everyone in the neighborhood advises Brandon to forget about his shoes. He plays the role well but not just because he does a good job of being terrifying but also because we see the other side of him, the fatherly side. He acts both sides of his character well and really does a solid job of showing convincing emotion when those two sides of him are forced to intersect.


Next we have Mahershala Ali, the most well known actor here by far. You may recognize him as Remy Danton from House of Cards (2013-) or as Cottonmouth from Netflix’s latest hit, Luke Cage (2016-). His role here is small but very powerful and important. He plays Marlon, Brandon’s uncle from Oakland. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing him play Remy but I was really impressed by how well he played the role of the wise ex-convict, great performance.


Christopher Meyer plays Rico, one of Bradon’s two best friends. He’s another actor who has been in a bunch of tv shows. The only one I’ve watched is Wayward Pines (2015-) but I don’t remember him from there. Anyway, here he’s the popular one of Brandon’s friends, the one who can ball and can flirt with girls. I hate to sound like a broken record but he’s great here too. While we get the sense that he’s the leader of the trio, in this story he follows Brandon for support. We can tell he thinks Brandon is being stupid for much of the film but that’s his boy so he’s going to follow him. One example of this being when Brandon confronts one of Flaco’s friends by hitting him in the head with a basketball. Rico thinks Brandon has lost his mind but doesn’t hesitate for a second to put up those hands to help his friends. Later on he also does a great job of being angry and hurt when Brandon goes too far.

Christopher Jordan Wallace. Christopher Wallace. Let’s see, where do I know this name from? That’s right, Brandon’s other best friend is played by none other than THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.’s son! I didn’t realize this at all until Liz told me days afterwards but I guess Biggie’s son decided to go into acting. Can we take a moment to just appreciate how cool it is to have Biggie’s son in the movie regardless of his acting ability? Luckily he’s also pretty good here. I guess he was in Notorious (2009) but I definitely don’t remember him from that. Here he plays Albert, aspiring rapper and ladies man who likes to practice his left handed layups. Looking back, it’s really cool they added a scene where Albert is trying to record in his makeshift studio/closet, cool little allusion there. Much like Rico, Albert is loyal to Brandon to a reckless extent but it comes off as very genuine. He’s toes the line of being comic relief sometimes and he’s definitely the jokester of the bunch but he’s also a key part of some of the movie’s most dramatic moments.

Now to the man of the hour, Brandon himself. Brandon is played by Jahking Guillory. He’s a relative newcomer to the acting world, especially when compared to the rest of the cast. There’s no way you’d be able to tell that from his performance though. Aesthetically he’s perfect for the role with his borderline iconic head of hair and underdog/hungry look. I had no problem at all believing that Jahking was anyone other than Brandon from Richmond, CA. He does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying a young man in conflict. Like I mentioned earlier, Brandon wants to fit in but he also wants to stand out. He’s having some serious identity issues and over the course of the movie he grows dramatically which is what kind of makes this a coming of age story. He nailed it with his stoic demeanor and was perfect for the role. If he decides to pursue acting I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on his career. Fun fact, apparently he’s a junior Olympic champion in track which makes it even more cool that the film pretty much opens with him saying he’s never had to be in a fight because he’s too fast.


Before I forget, I mentioned Biggie’s son was in this movie but I still can’t get over the fact that the director got Oakland legend and hyphy master MISTAH F.A.B., the yellow bus rydah, to do a cameo as the hilariously sketchy sidewalk shoe salesman. That was awesome, I really appreciated that.


The last substantive thing I want to talk about with this movie was the style and presentation. This isn’t a category that would come up with most other movies but there are many things this movie does well that just don’t fit into any other category.

One of those things is the surreal atmosphere the movie has. We get this vibe right off the bat when Brandon talks about his dream of just flying away so no one could harm him. We see him literally imaging himself floating off into space. Throughout the film, often at times when Brandon feels most alone, we see his imaginary astronaut companion show up. I hesitate to call this figure Brandon’s guardian angel because he never really protects him. I also hesitate to call him Brandon’s conscience because he never influences Brandon’s decisions, good or bad. His presence is simply there and it gives off very surreal vibes. Another thing that adds to this atmosphere are the constant slow motion scenes. I don’t know what it is about them but whether it’s Brandon walking through his neighborhood or him staring at his reflection, the slow motion has a palpable effect. Add to this the bright artificial lighting I mentioned earlier and you end up with many scenes that feel really dreamlike.


The next thing I want to talk about is simply the aesthetic and authenticity of the movie. You can tell that the director, Justin Tipping, had a very clear vision of what he wanted here. You can also tell that he’s dealing with subject matter that isn’t foreign to him. Everything feels so real; the shots of the environment, the overhead shots of BART, the shots of the liquor stores, the sideshows, etc. Beyond that, just the look of the characters was super legit. Brandon in his white or black t’s, long-ass hair, and bred 1’s looks just like the people I see when I go home. This movie is like Dopes (2015) much more cool and authentic cousin. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed Dope but at times it felt that they were cramming in references or sayings just to come off as authentic. Adding to the unique style of this movie are all the little things that end up being memorable like the fact that the movie is split up into parts with each part being named after a rap song that foreshadowed what was going to happen or symbolized what just happened. The music was spot-on; you have people driving their scrapers bumping Get Stupid by Mac Dre. I already mentioned how cool it was they had Biggie’s son and Mistah Fab but there’s other clearer things that show this movie is very hip-hop inspired. For example, we have Brandon constantly free styling to himself when he’s alone (I do this all the time!) and I absolutely loved how at the end he finally figures out how to end his song.

The feel of this movie was something I can’t accurately put into words, the best way I can put it is that it has serious style and it connects to the culture of the Bay Area perfectly.

Conclusion and Why This Movie is Important:


To conclude I want to say something about why this movie is important. You already heard me ramble on and on about why I like this movie but I haven’t said much on why it should matter on a larger scale. Well to begin with, like I said earlier, the cast is made up entirely of people of color and the director is also a person of color. Don’t you dare try to tell me there aren’t available, young, and talented black and brown actors out there, Hollywood, because we saw a cast full of them here. Another reason why this movie is important is because of what it’s about. I talked extensively about the role of cycles of violence and gang activity in this movie but at the end of the day it’s still a movie about a kid trying to get his shoes back. This movie is proof that not every film about people like Brandon, people kind of like myself, has to be a gang epic (Boyz n the Hood (1993), Menace II Society (1993), etc.) or a sports movie (Coach Carter (2005), Love and Basketball (2000), Hoop Dreams (1994)). Those are obviously all very good movies but there are other subjects to be explored. And to be fair there have been recent attempts to do just this with movies like Dope and Fruitvale Station (2013), both of which are great movies.

What more is there to say? Obviously I loved this movie from top to bottom. 5/5, if you ever get the chance to watch it I absolutely recommend it. Justin Tipping did an amazing job which is impressive given that this is one of his first films. His directing and writing was something I’m going to remember for a long, long time. Let me know your thoughts, even if you entirely disagree.