—by Keith Nelson, Jr.
The Air Jordan 1 was a sneaker by design, but a life force by mythology.
From the moment Michael Jordan debuted the sneakers on NBA hardwood in 1984, the AJ1 took on a life of its own. It was blamed for homicides, worshipped by every kid that wanted to soar in the air like Mike, and infamously “banned” from being worn during NBA games.
In a very real way, the Air Jordan 1 was as influential as a living person, and is even listed as a cast member on the Unbanned IMDB page. Director Dexton Deboree treated the epochal footwear as such in his 90-minute documentary Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1, centering the doc on the Air Jordan 1 and relegating the greatest player in NBA history to a “supporting character.” “It’s not just a shoe. It’s almost a being onto itself with symbolism and meaning,” Deboree told REVOLT.
Unbanned is a deep historical dive into the heart of the Air Jordan 1 mythology from those that not only experienced it in real-time, but helped fuel its popularity to almost biblical reverence. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, DJ Khaled, NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, Spike Lee, and Michael Jordan himself are only a fraction of the celebrities and influencers that sat down and put in context the massive influence a pair of sneakers had on the world for decades.
Deboree spoke with REVOLT following Unbanned‘s world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in April about why he treated this documentary about a sneaker the same way he would a biopic, and compares the Air Jordan 1 to everything from a prophet to a tale from the Bible.
Unbanned is the first documentary you’ve ever directed and it’s a massive undertaking looking at one of the most iconic pieces of footwear. How did this come about and how long did it take you to complete it? It took about a little over two years to complete. I have a relationship with Jordan Brand. I’ve done content pieces for them for advertising, sort of shorter form of digital content. Through my work with them over the years, I became kind of closer to the brand and even the fan base and even doing things with Michael [Jordan]. It started to really eat at me that the closer I got to it, the more I was like, “Shit, I don’t know how to really explain why people loved this shoe so much.”
You got people that are NBA fans, for them, that’s the meaning. Or you got people that are sneakerheads, the sneaker is the meaning. Or the cool factor is the meaning. But then you got all these other people that connect with all these different aspects. Whether it’s sports, or fashion, or music that connects for their reasoning. The closer I got to it, the more it got more complex and confusing. I had to get the truth and the meaning behind it. That sparked me on a journey. I pitched the brand on letting me tell the story, and make a movie almost as if they were like an estate, that has the life rights to someone that was alive or not alive any more. That’s kind of how we treated it.
Unbanned was a documentary about a sneaker, and to some extent about Michael Jordan as a player, but it had this narrative feel as if it was a coming-of-age story. What sort of narrative were you going for with Unbanned? For me, when I went looking for the meaning, I realized the meaning was kind of born of the AJ1. That was the catalyst to everything, and that was the answer, and that was really kind of the heart and soul of it. I structured the story to really be a biography on AJ1, as if AJ1 is our sort of three-dimensional character. I really mapped it and structured it based on a classic hero’s journey. That’s why it feels very narrative-based.
I didn’t start there. I sort of outlined and wanted to tell the full scope of the story. I knew AJ1 was at the center, so that was my anchor. But when I realized the idea, or put another way, the soul of the shoe actually predated the birth of the shoe, and then realized that the shoe itself kind of had a destiny. At that point, it really kind of took shape, and was like, “Oh, that’s why AJ1 is the hero here, because it actually has its own spirit and has its own life force.” That really ties into why people resonate so deeply with it, because it’s not just a shoe. It’s almost a being onto itself with symbolism and meaning.
That’s a very astute observation. The Air Jordan 1 was also a sort of scapegoat for certain crimes happening in the 80s. In the doc, you added in DJ Clark Kent and others speaking against the popular notion that the Air Jordan sneakers started a murder spree. Why do you think the Air Jordan 1 was so widely associated with that? If you think about prophets or social figures through time, the more meaning, resonance, power and social currency a person may attain, the more they’re a target for ridicule because people can’t deal with the fact that they have so much power and influence. Michael himself is such a hard person to criticize, and people find ways all the time. Then you hear a story of somebody that got shot and killed, and they happened to have Jordans on [and that] that was the catalyst for the crime. People jumped on that and said, “Ahh, yes. Finally, I got something I can use to chink his armor. I could bring him down to earth, because it would make me feel better.”
Just so I’m clear, you think the press purposefully pushed stories about the Air Jordan 1 causing crime to assassinate Jordan’s character? I do. I think it’s a combination. I think it’s that, on the one hand, a group of people were driven by that, and maybe not even intentionally. Sometimes you don’t know how you’ll react to something emotionally, and they may not have been aware of it at the time. They just made the connection and jumped on it. But, it really came from a deeper desire—call it jealousy—to bring someone else down to Earth because of your own fears and insecurities. But, then I also think it’s that thing of people don’t know how to make deeper sense of the world, and the state that we’re in, and so they look for surface-level meanings to attack it.
Somebody asked me, “Do you think it’s Nike’s responsibility to bring the price down so that that doesn’t happen?” My response to that is no, it’s our political leaders and community leaders to adjust the dynamic of our capitalist world. That’s very imbalanced. It’s also up to our parents to teach our kids. And the way the environment is structured in society to support families that don’t have a father in them or have a broken family. Or whatever the case may be to allow this mindset, and all these things take place where it’s OK to take someone else’s life for an item of clothing.
There were so many A-list big celebrities you got for this documentary. DJ Khaled, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Spike Lee, Chuck D. How did you choose who to interview? Why wasn’t LeBron James included in this? It seemed like he was a natural progression of Michael Jordan’s legacy. I agree on LeBron. He’s definitely on my list of those that I wish I would have included, and would have loved the opportunity to sit with him, because he’s a part of the narrative, no matter what. He could’ve certainly played a bigger role, and he should have. It really came down to time and logistics, first of all. I had a massive list of people I wanted to talk to. Many, many people that aren’t in the film are also on that list. The truth is, I went down the list, then reached out to people, everybody said, “Yes, I’ll have that conversation with you.” It was just a matter of editing it and getting it done [and] getting to a point where we had spent two years on this thing and going, “We have to stop.” The choice was made through timing parameters, and the universe saying this person’s available, or this person’s not available.
Michael Jordan is barely in the documentary. Why is that? It’s a couple of reasons. It was highly intentional. For one, it really is A.J. 1’s story. Michael is so larger than life and tends to sort of eclipse most of the things around him. I mean, even just being a room with him, it’s like all of the oxygen gets sucked out of the room and gravitates towards him. I didn’t want to spend so much time on him that it became another story about Michael. There’s been a lot of documentaries on Michael. But,I wanted it to be AJ’s story, and I wanted him to be a supporting character in that. My biggest perspective on the film, in general, and why some interviews are short, why there’s a lot of soundbites, and why I move from people to people, is because I really wanted it to feel very unbiased, and very almost journalistic. There’s no voiceover. Me as a director isn’t going to guide you and tell you, ‘This is what I think you should feel, and this is what I think you should think, and this is the point that I’m making.’
In a previous interview, you said that you recorded 70 hours of footage that you had to cut down to 90 minutes. What are some of the best moments that didn’t make the film and why didn’t they? I had a much deeper conversation with Carmelo Anthony that I would have loved to share and include. I had it in there, and then I realized it started to stray off topic. The structure of our storytelling was being sort of threatened a little bit because it sort of lagged in that area. It pushed for too long, just timing-wise. But the conversation we had was in some ways profound. I got some tricks up my sleeve, and hopefully I’m able to share some of that with the world.
Speaking of filmmaking and maintaining the storytelling, editing is huge part of that and at times can shape someone’s image based on what sequence of scenes we see. One sequence that stood out to me was the one where multiple people like David Stern, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and execs from Nike give their own take on if the Air Jordan 1’s were actually banned from the NBA. The way the scenes were sequenced and edited gave this feeling that Stern wasn’t giving the full truth, or wasn’t trustworthy. Was that a conscious decision to include him in the documentary in that way? Or is that something that just happened because of what he gave you in the interview? It’s a little bit of both. At the end of the day, I firmly believe that the absolute truth of the whole situation is somewhere in the middle, and nobody really knows it. Not even the guys involved. Everybody told me a sort of slightly different version of what happened, partially because it was 30-something years ago, and partially because they have their own beliefs around it. Things get revised in people’s memories, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not on purpose. Because there’s a narrative around it that’s been played out so long, you become sort of comfortable with that narrative, and then years later you forget that’s probably not 100% how that went down.
When I stepped back from it and went through the whole thing and I talked to everybody, I really realized I don’t think anybody was intending to mislead or tell me something that wasn’t true. It’s kind of like a story in the Bible. Is every single tale in the Bible 100-percent accurate to the truth and facts? Or is it meant to send you a message, or teach you a lesson, so the story is told in the way that it will do that versus sticking exactly to the to the point by point, fact by fact reality of what went down? That’s how I see it.
That’s a really fascinating way to look at the mythology of the Air Jordan 1. With that being said, what would you say something like social media would have done to the legacy of the Air Jordan 1? That’s an awesome question. Honestly, I think it ties a little bit into what I said about my own sort of experience with the facts that got tossed around. I think had social media been around at the time, I think we would have got snippets of people with opinions from all different sides, from inside, from outside, and then the community would’ve chimed in, and everyone would be guessing. People would’ve said, “I believe in Michael and I don’t believe in David [Stern].” At the end of the day, I think that could have been like the fever pitch of information and misinformation, and it would have been all kinds of craziness that went down. I think people would have looked back and been like, “Shit, I don’t know exactly what went down verbatim, point by point, but look at how fucking crazy we all just got over this thing.” At the end of the day, there’s always a point to why that stuff surfaces, and why it ignites such emotion and passion in people.
I don’t think it would have entirely changed the narrative in terms of we all would’ve decided that they weren’t banned, or they were banned, or whatever. The point is, these fucking shoes are on fire, and we all went crazy over it. Clearly, even Nike and the NBA are heated over it. They’re talking shit, things are going down, and maybe some people are exaggerating truth. I think that same thing would’ve happened, it’s just what played out in real time.
One thing that I also loved that there was a parallel between hip hop and AJ1’s rise. Now, we’re seeing artists like Kanye West blowing up with the Yeezys. Do you see a future where rappers are the biggest endorsers of sneakers over athletes? I think it’s always good to dance together, and I think it’s going to evolve. I think it’s cyclical. I think LeBron has the most popular shoes out there from a sales standpoint, at the moment. But I think it will still push back and forth. I think there’ll be quarters, or years, where it’s highlighted by rappers, and then next year it’ll go back into the camp of ballers. Maybe the fashion community will dominate it for a little while, over rappers and ballers. Then it will go back to ballers and then it will go back to rappers. The fact that it is so cyclical is positive for the game in general.
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