How One Moment In Pop Culture Changed Sneaker Culture Forever

Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It introduced the world to Mars Blackmon, and it changed the way we look at sneakers.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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30 years ago, a particularly personal, smart, offbeat film arrived that ushered in a new kind of marketing. Watch Spike Lee’s 1986 breakthrough She’s Gotta Have It to the absolute end and you’ll see a message, typical of the little Easter eggs Lee is prone to scatter among the dry listings of assistants and interns: THIS FILM CONTAINS NO JERRY CURLS AND NO DRUGS!!!

It does, however, feature a very significant appearance by a pair of shoes.

You already know. Everybody has heard about Spike Lee’s Air Jordan campaigns for Nike, but it’s always worth reiterating the origins of that relationship.

On the campaign trail late last month to promote his Ultimate Sneaker Expo, DJ Clark Kent — like Spike, a man who treats Brooklyn with the deep reverence of a holy land— mentioned to Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson and B.Dot that he felt that Spike Lee’s contribution to sneakers in fashion and particularly Air Jordans is occasionally underestimated, with She’s Gotta Have It as a pivotal moment.

Pointing his finger at Spike, Clark says, “It’s his fault.” This longtime footwear fanatic reiterates that, “The thing is that we were always into sneakers, but the people didn’t go crazy for sneakers until the sneakers became a character. And the character was created by Spike Lee.”  

While the Air Jordan 1 was already a bestseller by the time the micro budget, highly feted film debuted in August of 1986, this lo-fi approach was the antithesis of the NBA’s stadiums and Peter Moore and Rob Strasser’s savvy shoe marketing, but it was just as important.

Spike Lee Air Jordan 1 2

Costing just $175,000 (a mere fraction of Nike’s rumored $40 million 1988 marketing spend), the movie arrived on the back of The Messenger, a scrapped 1984 production about a cycle courier left to support his family that left Lee disillusioned. While Lee’s Mars Blackmon character seems lighter than the solemn subject matter of that proposed film, and is described by a love rival as unemployed, his bike messenger style probably stems from that aborted project. If you’re fortunate enough to catch Lee’s Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, an accomplished 1982 production submitted as his master’s degree thesis, you’ll notice that the sneaker focus is present there, too.

Production on She’s Gotta Have It took place in the summer of 1985, when the Air Jordan 1 had reached fever pitch. Spike’s Mars Blackmon is a comedy character who gets in the camera’s lens and assails everyone with a rat-a-tat series of questions, but he entertains the object of everyone’s affections Nola Darling enough to get repeat visits to her bedroom. Played as part of a trio of archetypes —  the street suitor against the initially romantic Jamie Overstreet and the pompous Greer Childs who Lee dismisses both in front of and from behind the camera as a sellout — Mars proves memorable from his first moment onscreen.

We’re introduced to him in a series of shots that include a loving closeup of his Air Jordan 1s from cinematographer Ernest Dickerson— when he’s having sex with Nola, they’re still on his feet. The shoes are integral to Mars’ personality. During a booty call that debuts his “Please babybababababy please” catchphrase, he’s accompanied by a Nike promo cutout of Michael Jordan. Mars thinks Greer isn’t down and Greer in turn dismisses him as a hoodlum, remarking, "He doesn't even tie his sneakers!"

In Lee’s world, hero worship of Larry Bird is a serious infraction, and while Mars loves Mike, he’s still a Knicks fanatic. The black-and- white film conceals it, but that pair he’s almost symbiotically attached to are royal blue and black editions that match his blue Starter jacket. This is a film proudly made entirely in Brooklyn by a proud Brooklynite who’s equally proud that Michael Jordan is product of the borough, too.

Given the high-speed turnaround of the project, the design was a rush job, making color the Air Jordan 1’s key selling point. It’s curious that it proves appealing in a film that deliberately conceals that.

Spike Lee Air Jordan 1s

In fact, the only time Mars is without his beloved Jordans is when he’s in short shorts and running shoes to get dumped by Nola and told to grow up. The shoe switch affords him a vulnerability than makes him even more of a sorry sight. We’re associating the Jordan with a loser rather than a winner in this movie, yet it’s still appealing.

For a long time, sportswear brands were only affiliating themselves with young black males that were professional athletes. To acknowledge that they were worn casually seemed almost taboo. Those end credits of She’s Gotta Have It include a telling thank you to Nike, as well as a thanks to Reebok, The North Face, and Starter. It’s safe to assume that Mars didn’t have to pay for those shoes.

A span of four weeks in summer 1986 was important in reshaping the shoe endorsement for good. When future music mogul Lyon Cohen helped take Adidas executive Angelo Anastasio to Run-D.M.C’s Madison Square Garden leg of their Raising Hell tour on Saturday, July 19, it led to a pioneering hip-hop and sportswear endorsement deal that resulted in its own series of shoes and apparel. It was a particularly high-risk move, not least because of the controversy after violence during the tour’s stop at Long Beach Arena on August 19. 11 days earlier, Spike Lee’s confrontational indie film about sex, empowerment, and identity was released. This wasn’t the squeaky-clean brand connection of old — as with Anastasio’s Adidas work, it was something of a step into the unknown.

She’s Gotta Have It would earn a staggering $7 million at the domestic box office. The Jordan fixation definitely didn’t end there. Lee’s next film, School Daze, was made for a comparatively colossal $6.5 million and shot in the spring of 1987. An unorthodox musical drama about racial divisions and college life, it’s a confrontational piece of work. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Nike Dunks (it is set at college after all) and, in a scene set in Larry Fishburne’s character dorm, one of his friends is seen lovingly cleaning his Air Jordan IIs.

Spike Lee Air Jordan 1 3

Wieden+Kennedy’s legendary copywriter and creative director Jim Riswold was key to bringing Spike and Mike together to advertise the next Air Jordan — a pivotal reboot of the line that would help send the franchise global. According to Riswold’s account of the project’s genesis on W+K’s blog last year, seeing a commercial for She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 piqued the attention of he and producer Bill Davenport enough to make them make a trip to the cinema to see it a little later. Those shots of Mars’ feet made enough impact for them to phone Spike to see if they could potentially work together.

Filmed in December 1987 and debuted in February (the same month that School Daze was released), the commercials featuring Mars, now a hyper enthusiastic super fan, and his hero were uniquely irreverent and integral to showing viewers a side of Jordan that might have gone unseen. A perfect accompaniment to the Air Jordan III’s offbeat looks, it offered an extension of the She’s Gotta Have It universe that assumed the viewer was, as Mars would put it, already down.

A year later, a TV spot ahead of the February 15, 1989, release of the Air Jordan IV even brought Nola back. The other object of Mars’ affection was seeing Michael Jordan — a twist ending of sorts, three years after that movie ended.

Speaking to an African-American audience rarely acknowledged, but integral to turning performance shoes into must-haves, Spike’s work with Jordan set the standard culturally. We exist in a world where constant social debate regarding the money that Kanye West’s influence brings to a burgeoning brand shows no sign of stopping. There were, by all accounts, numbers to back up the impact of the Jordan and Spike ads. That blitz of late 1980s campaigns that Riswold was key to (including Bo Knows) were reportedly key to expanding an industry market share that was 3 percent ahead of Reebok in 1990.

Looking back at She’s Gotta Have It, thatit would sow the seeds for something that would ultimately shift a lot of shoes was no surprise. Tracy Camilla Johns, who was so magnetic as Nola, only having six acting credits to her name on the Internet Movie Database is a total mystery. Hollywood’s subsequent preference for hood-took-me-under cliché over angry auteurs or creativity when it came to black American cinema was a depressing inevitability. But Spike Lee’s impact on what kids lineup for today is entirely understandable.

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