It’s around the 11-minute mark when Mars Blackmon literally careens into She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s 1986 directorial debut. Blackmon, played by Lee, rides his bike straight into the camera—crash!—as jumpcut stills showed his haircut, his nameplate chain and belt, and, of course, his Air Jordans. Blackmon’s crashing entrance belied a surprising longevity. He’s been here ever since.
Thirty-odd years after Blackmon’s entrance, he’s being reintroduced, this time played by Anthony Ramos in Lee’s Netflix-series adaptation of his first film. He’s still in Jordans, still in Cazals, still rides a bike. But the new Mars Blackmon exists in a world that, without the old Mars, might not even exist.
Rewind. She’s Gotta Have It was filmed in the summer of 1985, over a two-week period in Lee’s neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. For character inspiration, as he did for his location, Lee turned to what he knew. “Mars was this cat I would see around Brooklyn,” he explains. “You gotta compensate when you are a little guy when it comes to sports and all that stuff, and Mars was funny. And the key thing is it wasn’t Mars alone, I had to show three different black men, each distinct, that Nola puts together as one. Because one man is not enough, she needs three.
“Mars to me, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but he was the original B-boy, the sneakerhead,” Lee continues. “He loves sneakers, he loved Michael Jordan, so Mars had to wear Jordans.”
As far as casting, Lee found perfect people for the other roles, but knew he’d have to fill one himself. “I knew I was going to play Mars because I couldn’t afford to pay anybody else,” he says. “It worked because sometimes I have trouble remembering my lines so I repeat myself, and that’s Mars—because I couldn’t remember the lines. But it worked. I was born to play Mars.”
Mars’ repetitive delivery and love for his sneakers—he didn’t even take his Jordans off in bed—made the character the film’s most memorable, even ahead of Nola Darling, the “She” of the title. The character also caught the eye of a couple of guys in Oregon who had an idea of how they could give Mars an even bigger role.
“Jim Riswold and Bill Davenport, two guys, white men, who worked for Wieden & Kennedy in Portland saw She’s Gotta Have It and it was their idea, not mine, not Phil Knight’s, not Michael’s... it was their idea to pair Mars with Michael Jordan,” Lee says. “So they called me up, introduced themselves, said they loved the film, and said they were thinking of doing a commercial with me and Michael Jordan and I would direct it in black and white. I said, ‘what? Let’s go!’ But there is one hitch, Mike hasn’t seen the film so he doesn’t know me and, at the time, Mike had just signed his new deal and had director’s approval.
“They didn’t say it was going to be a series, they said they wanted to do one commercial. They wanted to do one commercial to see if the shit worked, if the shit don’t work then arrivederci. And I would have been happy with that, if I would have just done one I would have been happy.”
It turned out to be much more than that, of course. Riswold wrote the commercials, Davenport produced them, and Lee shot the first two in December of 1987. Jordan didn’t speak much in those first commercials—“back in the day he had that Carolina thing,” Lee says—but Mars, he spoke enough for both of them. You no doubt remember the lines. “Is it the shoes? It’s gotta be the shoes!” Within two years, Mars Blackmon had gone from Jordan worshipper to Jordan co-star. And when Air Jordan exploded across the world thanks in part to those cinematic commercials, Mars Blackmon blew up right along with him.
“Mars is a global iconic figure,” Lee says. “If you go on the internet, you will see murals of Mars all over the world.” His Brooklyn-hatted visage appeared on the side of an Air Jordan IV, his first run of commercials was commemorated with Spike’s own Jordan shoe, the Spiz’ike. And when Lee’s son Jackson got a shoe of his own, it wasn’t the Son of Spiz’ike. It was the Son of Mars.
“Mike knew me before I was married,” Lee says. “So he knows Tonya my wife, he saw my daughter Satchel and my son Jackson growing up. He saw me with the family and married and as a single guy. So Mike saw my children grow up and he said, ‘Yeah, Son of Mars.’”
Through the commercials and the shoes, Lee became nearly interchangeable with Mars, at least to some. Which is why when it came to casting the new Netflix She’s Gotta Have It series, he had to go in a totally different direction. “That’s why what we did now [was make] Mars Afro-Boricua, an African-American Puerto Rican,” Lee explains. “There is a great history of African-American Puerto Ricans, Carmelo [Anthony] is a great example, LaLa, it’s the same thing. That’s why Mookie had a Puerto Rican girlfriend, I mean it’s the same thing. Black African-Americans and Puerto Ricans invented hip-hop in the South Bronx, which is the biggest global explosion of culture going strong today. I said Mars had to be black and Puerto Rican, I saw Hamilton eight times, three with the public and five on Broadway and when I saw Anthony Ramos I said that’s Mars.”
But even with Mars re-invented and re-cast, Lee doesn’t think he’s ready to let go of the character yet. Not entirely. Not yet. “I would love for there to be a commercial for Mars as me now, and Mike as of now,” he says. “I don’t know what that scenario would be, but that would be a motherfucker. Michael Jordan the basketball player today and me as Mars today, what would that commercial be about? People want to see that shit.”
What’s craziest is that it ever happened at all. That Lee was able to take a guy he used to see around Brooklyn and make him an icon, that he was able to spread the sneaker culture he grew up with to the whole damn world. And maybe even moreso than that, that Michael Jordan was willing to take a chance on a little-known director and a character from his very first film.
“It wasn’t until the All-Star game in Toronto last year when I finally got up enough courage to ask Michael ‘why did you choose me,’” Lee says. “Because he didn’t have to, he didn’t know who I was. And he said, ‘Spike, motherfucker, it’s because you wear my sneakers.’