Spike Lee and the Birth of Sneaker Culture

Close-up of Spike Lee
Image credit: Thomas Rome / CC BY 2.0

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s first feature-length joint, the 1986 classic She’s Gotta Have It. The film is about the young, Brooklyn-based designer Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the three men jostling for her affection, including one Mars Blackmon, played with motor-mouthed perfection by Lee himself. Beautifully shot in black-and-white, the film — like so much of Lee’s work — has an odd quality when watched today in managing to feel both timeless and ultra-specific; a kind of time capsule that somehow speaks to every decade beyond just its own. The clothes, the technology, and the neighbourhood may have changed, but the ideas have a way of seeming uncannily prescient. 

She’s Gotta Have It also feels prescient in another way: it seems to contain the seeds of all that we would come to associate most with the man who made it. Such a remarkably assured debut now seems only fitting for an Oscar-winning auteur. As does a film so concerned with the personal and political lives of African Americans, when its director would mine the same experiences to great effect throughout a 40-some year career. There’s also the obsession with basketball, only fitting for the New York Knick’s best-known fan. And then, of course, you have the shoes.

Certainly, the best-known sneaker-related moment in Lee’s filmography is the infamous Jordan scuffing incident involving Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) in Do The Right Thing (1989). The scene is so celebrated, in fact, that in 2017 Nike released a super-limited edition “Buggin’ Out” Air Jordan 4. They were a perfect replica of the trainers in the film, scuff mark and all, and even included the toothbrush which Esposito’s character uses to clean his kicks in the movie. 

She’s Gotta Have It has its own memorable Jordan-centric scenes. When Mars is introduced, a series of jump cuts show off his various trademarks: the bike, the bling, the haircut and Cazal glasses, and, naturally, the Air Jordans 1s. The film was shot in the summer of 1985 at the height of Jordan mania and Mars is clearly all-in on His Airness’ signature shoe. So attached is Mars to his Jordans that he even keeps them on in bed with Nola. 

The moment in which Mars’ unusual love-making attire is revealed became one of the film’s most enduring set pieces. It also proved fortuitous in another, unexpected way. It turns out that among the many audience members to enjoy the scene was legendary Wieden+Kennedy copywriter and creative director, Jim Riswold. The scene sparked something in the ad man’s brain. ‘He won’t take his Air Jordans off, and it was like, that’s an idea, that’s an advertising campaign,’ Riswold later said of this moment of inspiration.

Riswold and producing partner Bill Davenport reached out to Spike with a proposal. ‘So they called me up, introduced themselves, said they loved the film, and said they were thinking of doing a commercial with me and Michael Jordan and I would direct it in black and white,’ Lee recalls. ‘I said, “What? Let’s go!” But there is one hitch, Mike hasn’t seen the film so he doesn’t know me and, at the time, Mike had just signed his new deal and had director’s approval.’

Close-up of Air Jordan 1s
Image credit: Piqsels

So, on December 7th, 1987, they got to work on the first commercial with Spike playing Mars (as scripted by Riswold) and Mike just being Mike. At the time, there was no talk of doing a series, the idea being to just do one and see how it goes. Of course, a one-off gamble on a rookie director playing a relatively unknown character soon turned into a smash-hit series of ads that recurred throughout Jordan’s playing career. They also turned Mars Blackmon into an icon.

The success of the ‘Spike and Mike’ ads might seem inevitable in retrospect, what with Michael Jordan’s superstar power, Lee’s artistic vision, and the undeniable draw of some of the most iconic sneakers ever made. But, for my money, the real secret stuff was Mars. He’s our conduit, a charismatic everyman who is simply awed by Jordan’s abilities (and his shoes, obviously). Mars, like us, is just a fan.

But he also represented something greater. In writing Mars, Lee took inspiration from the guys he saw around his neighbourhood and in doing so created the first mainstream representation of a bourgeoning cultural figure. ‘Mars to me, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but he was the original B-boy, the sneakerhead,’ Lee has said. ‘He loves sneakers, he loved Michael Jordan, so Mars had to wear Jordans.’ 

Spike Lee at a New York Knicks game
Spike Lee in Knicks attire wearing a pair of his signature Air Jordan Spiz’ikes
Image credit: Jehjeh123 / CC BY-SA 4.0

In this sense, Mars is also just like his creator. For years, Lee couldn’t bring himself to ask Jordan why he was willing to take a chance on an unknown director whose work he hadn’t seen. When Lee did finally ask him at the 2016 All-Star game in Toronto, Jordan’s reply was simple: ‘Spike, motherfucker, it’s because you wear my sneakers.’

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