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Justin Tipping's Directorial Debut Follows Young Man's Pursuit Of His 'Kicks'


How does a kid end up dead over a pair of sneakers? It's the kind of footnote you hear to a local crime story, and it always felt dismissive and unfair to Justin Tipping. He's a bit of a sneakerhead, and he knows from experience how it can happen.

JUSTIN TIPPING: Sneaker culture in general - I think specifically Air Jordans - they have an emotional weight to them. It's the social signifier of status and respect because Jordans are, like, the nexus of hip-hop and fashion. And the sneaker culture - a lot of kids and adults see it as a piece of art.

CORNISH: So when he got to direct his first movie, he decided to tell the story of a 15-year-old boy named Brandon who takes a brutal beating over a pair of vintage Air Jordans. Humiliated, Brandon vows to get his shoes back at any cost.

Justin Tipping was born and raised in Oakland where part of the movie is set. And that's not the only thing he has in common with the film's hero. As a kid, he was jumped over a pair of designer Nikes.

TIPPING: They were the first release of the Prestos. And it was the first time you can kind of custom ID them on, like, the website.

CORNISH: And these are, like, a low-top shoe, kind of jazzy, striping on the side.

TIPPING: Yeah, and I had made them white on white on white on white so they could be as pristine as possible. And I had my initials engraved on them - JTIP.

CORNISH: You were a target basically (laughter).


CORNISH: New shoes, name engraved.


CORNISH: And then what happens?

TIPPING: You know, I started approaching a group of kids. There was about 10 of them. And the first thing I hear is, he's got the Prestos. And it was that moment I knew it was all going to fall apart for me.

Up until that point I'd probably avoided violence or found a way to avoid violence, but in certain situations, it's just going to find you. And you just get hit. You fall. You're just kind of covering yourself, and slowly you just kind of give up. And yeah, that's what it's like to get jumped.

CORNISH: And when it's over, the feeling I got watching the film was just an overwhelming sense of humiliation.

TIPPING: Yes. You know, I remember walking around school, and kids would go out of their way to stop me and tell me, wow, you got messed up and make fun of me and laugh at me. And then specifically I remember a moment where my brother looked at me - one of my older brothers - I had black eyes and a busted lip. And he said, trying to console me, it's OK; you're a man now.

CORNISH: Right. The idea is, like, you survive this, right? He's comforting you.



TIPPING: It was a rite of passage...


TIPPING: ...In society's eyes. And for me, in retrospect, I completely disagreed with that idea that violence is somehow synonymous with what it means to be a man and how we define masculinity.

CORNISH: It sounds like you've been thinking a lot about, like, manhood - right? - and this idea that you can be, like, shamed into taking certain action or not taking action. And, like, has it made you look back at your childhood or high school or, you know, just kind of the codes you learned growing up and question them?

TIPPING: Yeah, definitely. You know, I was not the kid that was going to go after the kids that beat me up, but I definitely - made me look back and say oh, that was weird. I was only allowed to feel anger. Or, oh, that was weird. I wasn't allowed to be sensitive. Like, if I cried, then I would get made fun of. And you know, the question is how do you end that cycle?

CORNISH: How did you think about ways to tell the story that would avoid cliches - right? - of just kind of, like, mindlessly-evil, villainous gangbangers - right? - like, no internal life, literally baring their fangs.

TIPPING: I mean, it would be easy to just - here's a thug. This is the villain, and that's it. Here's one to mention. But I always think about the time getting kicked and stomped and thinking about, well, what drove those kids to the point of kicking me, right? And you know, the way Flacco is raising a son as well.

CORNISH: Right, Flacco is the villain, the kind of ringleader of the assault.

TIPPING: Right. And for me, you know, it's like these kids have choices to make. And it starts with the youngest kid, and he could become Brandon. Brandon could - Brandon essentially becomes the guy he hates. Hopefully he realizes that.

CORNISH: Right, he's in danger of becoming the bully with a gun.

TIPPING: And the bully could be - end up becoming Brandon's uncle. This false sage who says, you know, this is a dog-eat-dog world. Or he can realize the madness in his life. And all of these characters can at the end hopefully find a way to have a slight shift in their moral barometer in life and walk a better path, hopefully.

CORNISH: In the end, did this world feel bleak to you? And I ask because, you know, you grew up in East Bay (laughter). And, like, do you feel like it lands in a hopeful place?

TIPPING: I think it lands in a bittersweet place. Well, I never wanted it to feel bleak throughout. I always wanted there to be some levity. And I think that even if you grew up there, you're still a kid. And you crack jokes, and you still see beauty in the world.

There's just these, you know, events that take place that are scary, but it doesn't always have to take away from your teenageism (laughter), which is just having fun with friends. It was just important for me to, you know, remind the audience and the viewers that this does happen every day, and we need to continue the conversation.

CORNISH: Well, Justin Tipping, this is obviously a personal project, and thank you very much for sharing, you know, telling us more about it.

TIPPING: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.