Exposing the Ridiculousness of Hypermasculinity: An Interview With Justin Tipping
Walk in his shoes. Filmmaker Justin Tipping talks about his feature debut, Kicks, and redefining modern masculinity.
KicksDirector: Justin Tipping
Cast: Jahking Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Christopher Meyer
Studio: Focus Films
US Release date: 2016-09-09
A coming-of-age epic set on the streets of the East Bay Area, Justin Tipping’s Kicks is, at its core, a meditation on the absurdities of modern masculinity, specifically through the lens of hip-hop culture. On the surface, however, the film is a violent tale of inner city warfare, all waged over a pair of Jordans.
The story centers on 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a sensitive artist at heart who tries his best to act like an angry, tough, king of the streets-type, despite his diminutive frame. When he buys a new pair of sneakers, he promptly gets beat up for them by a local crew. He and his friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) embark on a quest to retrieve the shoes and seek vengeance on the thieves who crossed them.
I recently sat with Tipping in San Francisco to talk about shooting in his native Bay Area, casting Biggie Smalls’ son, redefining masculinity, the beauty of sneaker culture, and more.
Despite the moments of violence and misogyny and the general air of machismo on the movie’s surface, I’d say the story is actually about male vulnerability and the absurdity of machismo. Is that fair to say?
I think it’s very fair to say. The movie is trying to question the idea of masculinity and hypermasculinity. That also has to do with how you treat women, so therefore, it’s exposing the ridiculousness of it. The three boys have clearly never been with girls. You just think that you’re supposed to talk that way and one-up each other on how many girls you’ve been with, or whatever it is.
As upsetting as that might be to some people, it’s great because we should talk about it. That’s one example of the social construct of, like, “the boss”, which was created and we all grew up with. “You can only be angry. If you cry, you’re a pussy.” It’s a narrow-minded view of what it means to be a man.
For someone like me, it was uncomfortable growing up as a hip-hop head because I wasn’t a “tough guy” and didn’t fit into that stereotype.
I hope that everyone who’s going through something like that can see the movie. Even people who know nothing about sneakerheads or hip-hop or Bay Area culture can watch it and have a new understanding. When they see something on the news about a riot or fight over a pair of Jordans, hopefully they can empathize instead of listening to the reporter condescendingly. People shame these kids they know nothing about when they’re sitting in a $400 outfit or driving a Benz to work.
I was more like you. I was like the Brandon character. I always felt a level of anxiety, like I had to purport to be hood or I’d get caught up. When my friends wanted to fight, I was the kid in the back like, “Aw...no!”
Part of the reason I had Brandon say this voiceover in the movie was because it was something I did. He raps in his head this “Party and Bullshit” verse or whatever, and it’s almost escapism. He’s the opposite of what Biggie’s rapping about. I think that idea of masculinity in rap is a reflection of what we’ve been taught. We’re all walking around thinking that violence is the quickest way to respect and power amongst other kids. Now, years later, I’m thinking, “That was so stupid!” [laughs]
The way you present the story is like an urban epic of sorts. You make the characters and the East Bay feel larger than life.
That was always the goal, to make the movie feel like a fable or a teenage odyssey. It’s so small on the surface when you’re thinking just about the shoes. It’s also definitely informed as an adventure by the Amblin era. [Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's production company in the '80s] Being an ‘80s baby, when I’d talk about Kicks, I’d reference Stand By Me and The Goonies and that feeling that we’re about to go on an adventure. It was about how to tell an adventure story on that teetering adolescence age, in the East Bay.
People say it’s The Goonies meets Boyz n the Hood, and that makes sense. The Bicycle Thief, the Italian Neorealist film, was a big influence. It’s just about a bike, but you can empathize with their story, which was about the fallout of society’s failures. That definitely informed Kicks.
Let’s talk about the cast. There are some super interesting gets here.
The world of the movie is so specific that I knew I would have to use non-actors, kids from the East Bay. But I had to also make sure there were actors so that we could actually run a set smoothly and get through a day. I found the three leads through a casting director in LA. They had almost no screen experience, but when you’re from LA, it’s easier to find kids because acting is attainable to them. I know a lot of kids in the Bay Area…
...don’t even think of acting as a career path...
...which is sad. We should change that. I found Jahking and he was on Snoop Dogg’s football team at the time. [laughs] He had never really acted before, but he was 12 and he naturally had this younger-brother, prepubescent dynamic, which was necessary to the character of Brandon. Chris Meyer, who plays Rico, was hilarious.
Then, serendipitously, C.J. Wallace walked in the room. I had already written “Party and Bullshit” into the script. I asked who this kid was, and my casting director said, “It’s Biggie Smalls’ son.” I was like, “Excuse me?” [laughs] I was almost harder on him because I didn’t want to just cast him because of my fanboy status. I put the three of them in a room together and had them improv, and C.J. was fantastic.
When we were shooting in the Bay Area, people caught wind that Biggie Smalls’ son was on set, so some people would just come out. C.J.’s mom is Faith Evans, and we didn’t know if she would come out, but she sent out Lil’ Cease to be his chaperone.
Lil’ Cease was the chaperone?!
Yeah! He came up and was like, “What’s up, bro. Whatever you want, I got you.” It’s like, part of Junior Mafia is on the set of Kicks? People heard, and it became a big community thing. People came to take photos, chop it up, and he would just talk to people. It was pretty amazing. Mahershala Ali plays Brandon’s uncle, and I was told he wanted to talk to me. He’s from Oakland/Hayward.
Is that right?
I didn’t know either! That’s why he saw the script and was like, “I’m down.” It was amazing. We also went to every youth group in Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco to find kids to be in the movie. I would just set up a camera and let anyone who wanted to audition come in. I even went up to kids on the script and was like, “Want to be in the movie?” [laughs]
One time, we were walking around Richmond and there were these two kids on the corner. I said to my producer that one of the kids had a great look, and he starts running after them! I was like, don’t run at the kid on the corner like that! [laughs] One of them said, “I almost knocked your producer out! I thought he was trying to run up on us!” He actually ended up being in [the movie].
When I was a kid, I was really into sneakers. Then, I hit high school and dropped the sneaker thing because I was pretentious, and found it to be too “materialistic”. Now I’m back to being a sneakerhead. I’m happy to express myself through my kicks. Where are you at with sneaker culture right now?
I’m probably in the same boat as you. I was never a heavy sneakerhead. I’ve always been in tune via Hypebeast, looking at what’s cool, but I was never actively a sneakerhead. Strangely, the more I’ve been involved with making the movie and talking to sneakerheads about what shoes mean to them, I’ve almost been indoctrinated into it. I’ve taken it on and have slowly been obsessing over sneakers more and more.
The violence in Kicks is the intersection of materialism at its worst and masculinity at its worst. But if you can afford to buy shoes, you don’t deserve to die or be beaten up for them. A lot of sneakerheads I talk to say things like, “I always wanted a pair of Jordans, and I got my first job to get them, which taught me work ethic.” I’ve grown to appreciate sneaker culture a lot more.
People say shoes are a waste of money, but the resale sneaker market is in the billions right now. It’s actually not a depreciating asset if you play your cards right.
Sometimes a movie’s best moments are the result of tinkering, small adjustments that help a scene come together in a big way. Was this the case for any of the scenes in Kicks?
Actually, in the jumping scene where they take Brandon’s sneakers, I initially didn’t intend to use the cameraphone footage. In the final version, it cuts between reality and the phone footage, but that was never my intention.
I used to hate when found footage was used in films. That was one of those moments when I was looking at it in the edit and something didn’t feel right. We actually didn’t have much time to finish shooting it. We tried to do a oner up until the time he hits the ground, but we couldn’t get it down. We needed something to cut away to. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel grounded. We needed to go more lyrical.
We just rearranged shots in different orders and dropped the sound out, and it became more about the experience of being kicked and stomped out. So, ultimately, I lost the battle of never using found footage. [laughs]