Given how the influence directors Spike Lee and John Singleton have had on millennial filmmakers -- and given the extent to which new diversity-minded stories are aching to be told -- it was only a matter of time before a whole new class of young black stories emerged.
That idea, brewing for some time, may be reaching a new ferment. The past few Sundances have given us coming-of-age films such as “Dope” and “Morris from America.” The latest in their vein -- a Bay Area tale titled “Kicks” -- arrived Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. And though it’s hardly a perfect film, it’s a solid and discussion-stirring entry in the revived genre.
Directed by a young helmer named Justin Tipping, “Kicks” has its eye on the scruffier parts of Northern California’s East Bay (indeed, fans of "Fruitvale Station” will recognize the topography). Teenager Brandon has a decent enough life there -- he’s neither cool nor tough, but has sensitivity, a quiet confidence and two good friends.
He is, however, fairly poor, and self-conscious about it too, a concern that takes physical form in his tennis shoes, which are old and ratty, unlike the slick basketball Nikes his friends wear. (One of the movie’s intriguing nuances is the notion of relative wealth among the equally underprivileged -- even a few-hundred-dollar sneakers can make all the difference.)
Thanks to a local fencer looking to make a deal, Brandon is able to come into possession of a pair of vintage Air Jordans. Confidence soon follows, as do the affections of a comely young lady. Life is good. Shortly after, though, Brandon is beaten and robbed by a local gangster. So he sets out with his friends to track down the assailant and get the shoes back.
Needless to say, this leads him into a series of adventures in a criminal underworld that are colorfully portrayed, if not always plausibly pulled off.
There’s a neat irony, and social commentary, in Brandon feeling unjustly ripped off of shoes that were themselves stolen; though the film doesn’t wallow in such contradictions, they’re clearly on its mind. The laws of survival in a place such as Richmond, Calif., where the film is largely set, are not always consistent but they’re ever-present, and watching the main characters navigate them is one of the movie’s chief pleasures.
This is also the case with guns and gun violence, which the film depicts as an unquestioned value even as it clearly is challenging the idea outside the frame.
“I wanted to explore how masculinity in our society is synonymous with violence,” Tipping said after the screening. “Our entire concept of what it means to be tough as a man is flawed and that has to be killed as well,” he added.
Tipping, a biracial man who grew up in Northern California, said he based the movie on an incident in his own childhood -- he was robbed for his sneakers at age 16, and though he didn’t spend the next few days tracking down his attacker, he did question the reactions of those around him.
“My brother said ‘you're a man now,’ the director recalled of the incident. “It made me proud for a split-second, then I thought: ‘How is it that being beaten and subject to nonsensical violence makes you a man?'”
Especially heartening, in a time when the call is finally going out to see more black actors in prominent roles, are the film’s performances. Playing Brandon is Jahking Guillory, a young actor who cuts a Jaden Smith-like visage (as one character chides him in the film), but with more depth.
He’s far from the only standout. Brandon’s two pals -- Christopher Jordan Wallace as his goofy sidekick Albert and Christopher Meyer as his more swaggery buddy Rico -- are excellent, as is Mahershala Ali, whose work as Brandon’s hardened uncle makes you realize how much better he is than the small parts in franchises such as “The Hunger Games” allow him to show (and how all talk of a dearth of worthy black actors to take their place alongside the Will Smiths of the world is so much bunk)
The movie can become a little too enamored of the idea of sneakers as a status symbol and cultural flashpoint. And the film, which is not averse to the occasional contrivance, breaks not much new ground in either the subgenre of the sensitive-young-man-with-his comic-relief pals or the bad-men-lurk-in-the-inner-city category (Sundance long took care of both of those.)
But “Kicks” still feels fresh, thanks to the vibrancy of its performances and the complexity of its themes. This is a film about both the necessity and dangers of gun violence, particularly in oppressed minority communities. It’s a paradox that won’t be news to anyone surrounded by it, but one that these days can’t get enough smart big-screen treatment.
Lee, incidentally, is still interested in this subject, as his recent "Chi-Raq" demonstrated. (One can only hope the same of Singleton. “Empire” episodes are nice and all, but “Boyz N The Hood” they’re not.)
The diversity debate feels like it still has many more miles to play out. Progress may not be happening very fast in mainstream Hollywood. But if the studio business is more content to cast thinly drawn minority characters in multiplex-friendly movies, steering far clear of the social realism that once seemed like at least a viable strain in the movie business, it’s nice, with new indies like this one, to know that such strains are alive and, well, kicking.