Brandon lives with a single, working mother and attends Richmond High. Selling candy from a cardboard box on street corners, he saves up enough money to buy a pair of Air Jordan Bred 1’s. Brandon hopes the shoes will boost his social status, but after just one day of wearing them, he gets beaten up walking home from school, the shoes snatched away from him as he cries. His attacker, Flaco, grins at him. “Gimme them kicks,” he says.
Brandon, the protagonist of the new movie Kicks, experienced the brutal beating on screen. But for director Justin Tipping, an El Cerrito native who shot the film in Richmond and Oakland, the experience was real.
Tipping was 16 when he was beaten in a parking lot for his own shoes, a pair of “coke-white” Nike Prestos. “It’s okay, you’re a man now,” he remembers his brother saying after the incident. The mix of pride and sadness he felt in that moment served as the emotional impetus behind Kicks, a film that explores the relationship between poverty, masculinity and violence, Tipping said.
Kicks follows Brandon as he tries to reclaim his shoes, a journey that leads him through escalating violence. After stealing a gun from his uncle’s house, Brandon ultimately has to decide whether or not to shoot Flaco in a final showdown near a Richmond overpass.
For local viewers, the film’s settings are familiar. In the halls of Richmond High, Brandon and his friends laugh and then scatter as a fistfight breaks out. They fare jump to ride BART from Richmond to Oakland. They do donuts in a car with their older cousins at a sideshow in an empty lot in Oakland.
Setting—and shooting—the film in the East Bay was a priority for Tipping. “Part of the reason why I wanted to tell stories was to represent those places and people that Hollywood doesn’t always portray,” he said. “Seeing places you know on screen has a lasting impact on a viewer.”
Tipping also made an effort to hire local actors, even if they had never been in a feature film. One of these actors was Donte Clark, now Creative Coordinator at RYSE youth center in Richmond, who was teaching at RYSE on the day Tipping’s crew held auditions there two years ago. When Clark read from the script, “everyone was blown away,” Tipping said. Clark was cast as Ryan, Brandon’s partying older cousin who lives in Oakland.
A hundred students from Richmond High also made it onto the screen, as extras; so did three young people from the Reach Ashland Youth Center in San Leandro. Clark said he salutes Tipping and the crew for hiring local talent.
“They didn’t have to come to the RYSE center to host auditions, they could’ve had it anywhere,” said Clark. Instead, they “gave people here an opportunity to be a part of this conversation,” he said.
Not everyone at RYSE is enthusiastic about the film. Rasheed Shabazz, Director of Media, Arts, and Culture at the center, said the film “relies on stereotypes about black masculinity, socialization and poverty without any substantive critique of the systems that create those conditions.”
RYSE’s mission, Shabazz said, is to challenge those systems, and “unfortunately Kicks fails to do that.”
Audience reactions at a premiere at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater last weekend were mostly positive. “I thought it was outstanding,” said Oakland resident Melody Fuller. “It was extremely intense.” Julia Fawcett, of Berkeley, said she enjoyed the film but wasn’t sure if it was “glorifying violence or being critical of it.”
Tipping said he did not aim to portray violence and machismo as glamorous in the film.
“I hope it opens up discussion and dialogue about the cycle of violence,” he said. “And hopefully, somehow, it illustrates ways in which we can start redefining what it means to be a man.”
The film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, opens at 35 theaters nationwide this weekend.
Said Tipping, “I hope that I did the Bay proud.”