WESTSIDE CONNECTION

The Grim Beauty of ‘Kicks’: A Hip-Hop Coming-of-Age Film Exploring Masculinity and Violence

Filmmaker Justin Tipping’s stunning debut explores a Bay Area teen’s dark journey in search of his stolen Jordans.

In the Bay Area-set Kicks, the debut feature of writer-director Justin Tipping, inner city teenager Brandon (Jahking Guillory) hustles to afford the red and black Air Jordans that will bring him all he’s ever dreamed of—confidence, respect, girls—only to see his new sense of self disappear in the blink of an eye when a thug jacks him for his kicks.

In real life, it was a pair of fresh Nike Prestos that caught the hungry eyes of the kids who jumped Tipping in the darkened parking lot of a movie theater when he was a teenager. I knew that teenager a little bit as we grew up in the same town, where Tipping was classmates with my younger sister. I knew that parking lot, too: a dimly lit patch of asphalt that felt desolate at night, near the train tracks in still-developing Emeryville, then an industrial gateway between the big city lights of San Francisco, the urban sprawl of Oakland, and the farther reaches of the East Bay.

Tipping still remembers vivid details of that night, the kids that poured out of two cars sizing him up, and those coveted shoes. “They were white on white on white on white—the whitest, purest, cleanest shoe ever,” he says with a smile as we talk Kicks in Los Angeles, where he now lives.

He also remembers the bruises he went home with, and the pep talk his older brother Brandon gave him. “I remember him looking at me and trying to console me as an older brother by saying, ‘It’s okay, you’re a man now’—as if I’d gone through this rite of passage and was stronger for it,” said Tipping.

“But there was a split second when I was proud and then deeply saddened by it, and in retrospect I wondered, why is masculinity always associated with violence in every facet of growing up in your teenagedom? Even the way you talk to girls, how you’re supposed to act around girls, what we’re taught is that you can only feel anger, you’ve got to man up, you can’t be a pussy, you can’t be a bitch, and this is how you’re supposed to show yourself to the world.”

Tipping found creative inspiration in the lasting emotional impact it made on his 16-year-old self, penning a story (with co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden) about a sneaker-obsessed East Bay kid whose odyssey to get back his stolen shoes leads him down a dark path for justice, unaware of how the invisible cultures of hypermasculinity and violence are spurring him toward dangerous ends. He named his protagonist after the brother who gave him that pep talk and peppered the script with the hip-hop music he grew up on.

Tipping counts the Amblin flicks of the ‘80s among his influences, along with European New Wave auteurs, Scorsese, Malick, and Wong Kar-wai. “I like the content of Spike Lee with the bittersweetness of Spike Jonze, and the films of Andrea Arnold,” he said. “I was watching that, and A Prophet, and La Haine on a loop before I was about to shoot Kicks.”

“Story-wise we clearly stole from The Bicycle Thief,” he laughed, “but there’s also an Iranian film called Children of Heaven that deals more so with class, about a kid who loses his sister’s shoes. But they all have something in common in that they’re dealing with characters on the fringes of society who you don’t really see that much.”

The world of Kicks is certainly one rarely committed to film or television: an urban landscape of basketball courts and empty homes where the casual violence that dots Brandon’s low-income neighborhood is nothing compared to the ruthless dangers that lie a few stops down the BART line in uncharted territory. Staying true to his Bay Area roots was important to Tipping, even if it made getting money to make Kicks harder than usual for an independent first-time filmmaker. He credits producer David Kaplan for getting 20 backers onboard to finance the modestly budgeted film, which was shot on location in Richmond and Oakland two summers ago.

“It’s no secret that financiers want to know how they’re going to sell the movie and get their money back,” said Tipping, who resisted the tres Hollywood suggestion that he cast a hot name actor to boost the film’s marketability. “I wasn’t going to rewrite it so that Zac Efron or Miles Teller could play a friend. At the time it was like, ‘What about Jaden Smith?’ But that wasn’t how I wanted to approach the making of this film, to have some weird jump the shark move.”

The big question was where he’d find his young star. Tipping, who is half-Filipino, had written Brandon as a mixed-race kid but cast a wide net at youth centers and arts programs to find new talent to authentically flesh out his rare Bay Area-set film, one filled with classic rap songs that swirl like spoken word in his young protagonist’s head. But while that casting call yielded a wealth of local talent who’d fill the eventual supporting cast, he was stymied in finding his lead.

Tipping finally found his Brandon in then-13-year-old newcomer Jahking Guillory, who anchors Kicks with a quiet intensity. And so in the casting of Kicks, the film became a tale led by an African-American star—and Brandon’s world evolved in turn, filled in by young actors C.J. Wallace (Notorious) and Christopher Meyer (Wayward Pines) as Brandon’s best friends, and House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali as the hardened uncle he journeys from Richmond to the rougher streets of Oakland to seek help from.

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Guillory was a promising track athlete who had to choose between sports and acting when Kicks came along. “Money was tight, and I had to go back and forth and fly to Florida for the Junior Olympics, and my mom was like, you’ve got to pick one—and I picked acting to help out my family,” Guillory, now 15, told me. “That’s why I’m down this road.” These days Guillory, Wallace, and Meyer are also chasing musical careers. “I’m so focused on getting out of that box,” Guillory declared. “Not Jahking, rapper, but Jahking—artist. You don’t want to be pigeonholed into that one thing. It’s the same for acting.”

Hip-hop is a current that runs through every aspect of Kicks, onscreen and off. As we talked all things Kicks, Guillory and Wallace got going on the topic of hip-hop, bouncing off one another.

“The Pack, Lil B, they started a whole movement,” Wallace exclaimed. “Lil B started a revolution!”

“He makes love to the beat,” laughed Guillory, comparing the Based God to Tyler, the Creator before wildly praising the nonsensical ad-libs of Larry June.

Two years ago on set, Guillory and Wallace tell me, they were bumping Young Thug’s Barter 6 mixtape and Travis Scott as well as the Bay Area MCs their characters worship—rappers like Mac Dre, Iamsu!, Dave Steezy, HBK Gang. Their songs also feature on the film’s soundtrack along with tracks by artists like Keith Jenkins of The Pack, who makes a brief cameo in the movie, and Jay Casio, a musician Tipping grew up with back home.

It’s through music that Brandon gains the confidence to think big, dream big, and feel the fleeting flashes of bravado that spur him to make one fateful decision after another. So it’s therefore perfectly Bay Area to see the biggest cameo in Kicks come courtesy of hyphy legend Mistah F.A.B., who plays the local fixture that sells Brandon his prized Jordans from the side of a van brimming with bootlegs.

“Music,” Guillory said, “is Brandon’s getaway. Even when he recites stuff in his bedroom, it helps him cope with his anger, with getting picked on. He’s just afraid to rap in front of everybody; it’s when he’s by himself that he opens up. Brandon would have probably tripped out a long time ago if he hadn’t come across hip-hop.”

Wallace, the son of the late Notorious B.I.G., makes music with his brother Jahad but is also set on studying film at UCLA and becoming the next Tarantino. And the next Leonardo DiCaprio. And the next Denzel Washington. “I want to do everything!” he declared, Guillory in agreement.

He also eagerly waxed poetic about music, hip-hop, and the art of the skit. “There was this one skit on this Kendrick Lamar song, ‘The Heart Pt. 2,’ on the Overly Dedicated mixtape, it was this guy talking, and he’s asked, ‘What’s one of the main things that keeps you alive?’ And he was like, ‘Music, for sure—I’ve thought about killing myself a bunch of times. It’s a dark world. But music has kept me here.’ And I relate to that 100 percent.”

It’s pure coincidence that Kicks features one of Wallace’s dad’s classic joints, “Party And Bullshit,” whose opening salvo acts as one of Kicks’ driving mantras. “I think it just shows you how powerful my dad’s music was,” said Wallace. “Twenty-plus years later and that line’s the biggest line in the movie: I was a terror since the public school era. Bathroom passes cutting classes squeezing asses. It’s still relatable!”

Guillory nodded. “That song, ‘Party and Bullshit’—I think that’s the movie, kind of. And the movie really needs that one song. The way it starts and finishes—me and my sidekicks, rocking fly kicks—from beginning to end, it’s beautiful.”

But Kicks isn’t really about partying, bullshit, or sneakers. “This happens every day, and it’s not even just over shoes,” offered Guillory. “People are getting beat up, getting killed. My friend got stabbed like 17 times for his backpack. This happens every day. People don’t know because they’re not in it, but this happens every day.”

“Even the way women are portrayed, there are a lot of things you could talk about with this film,” added Wallace. “I hope the main message is how violence and masculinity are synonymous. It’s really sad that it’s looked at that if you get beat up, you’re a man now. But that’s just how things are in certain places.”

Kicks asks audiences to peer deeper into the cultures that we obsess over, idolize, and commodify at extreme costs. “Jordans to me are the nexus of fashion and hip-hop, and there’s always been hypermasculinity in hip-hop,” said Tipping. “Brandon’s always rapping in his head and to me that’s like a security blanket. It’s escapism. He’s just a square, unaware of how not cool he is, and rapping really hard lyrics. For me, that was a way to feel tough—even if you’re not. But what does that teach you?”