Great films have been made about the inner city lives of young people in New York, Los Angeles, and the iconic metropolises of the world, but Kicks, the confident debut from writer-director Justin Tipping, is a rarity: A coming-of-age drama not only set in the San Francisco Bay Area, but set specifically in the urban strip across the water known as the East Bay.
The Bay is having a pop cultural moment thanks to hometown stars the Golden State Warriors, led by league MVP Stephen Curry, who are back in the NBA finals after bringing the title home to Oakland for the first time in 40 years in 2015. This season, they turned in the best record in NBA history, going 73-9 and eclipsing the 72-10 mark set by Michael Jordan’s ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls. The American city is never more alive than when their basketball team is firing on all cylinders, and the Warriors have brought a swagger back to the Bay. They’ve in turn been spurred along, again, by the support of East Bay rapper/philosopher Lil B, whose curses on rival players have the uncanny knack of coming true—just ask Kevin Durant. (TYBG.)
Now the Bay Area has Kicks, a stylish drama originally pitched as an urban Amblin film that calls to mind Vittorio de Sica and Dope—along with Mac Dre, Mistah FAB, and E-40.
In Kicks, a short, shy 15-year-old named Brandon (Jahking Guillory, in a striking starring debut) lives in a low-income neighborhood in Richmond, California, dreaming of the kind of fresh sneakers that could elevate his social status and bring with them all that he imagines might follow: Respect, girls, manhood. Unfortunately for Brandon, he’s got no money, doomed to be pushed around by bullies or, worse—go altogether unnoticed—in his ratty pair of white sneakers, the only shoes he owns.
He tags along with his two best friends, tall ladies man Rico (Christopher Meyer) and confident, wisecracking virgin Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, the scene-stealing son of the Notorious B.I.G.), as they laze away their days in and out of school, smoking weed, making clumsy rhymes, stealing 40s from the local liquor mart, and trying, with varying degrees of success, to talk to girls.
So when a pair of black and red Air Jordan 1s comes into his life via the local fence, a highly motivated Brandon hustles candy bars for the cash to buy them. Those Holy Grail kicks send his confidence skyrocketing, echoed by the triumphant classic rap lyrics that serve as onscreen chapter headings, one of director Tipping’s stylistic flourishes.
But just as swiftly as he slips those sacred ego-boosting Nikes on his feet, Brandon loses them to a local hood called Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) who stomps him and steals his Jordans. Traumatized, angry, and humiliated, Brandon pads home, bloodied and shoeless. He decides to take revenge by hunting down his attacker and reclaiming his newfound masculinity, along with those kicks.
It’s the Bicycle Thief for Bay Area youth, a cinematic influence that, one hopes, might inspire a generation of hip-hop loving sneakerheads to cue up a little Italian neorealism after a watch. Filmed in evocative, lyrical compositions by cinematographer Michael Ragen (Faults), Kicks finds unusual beauty in the concrete playgrounds and streets of Richmond, but doesn’t skimp on the urban magical realism.
Kicks leans heavily on Brandon’s recurring fantasy, an otherworldly astronaut spirit guide who urges the overwhelmed teenager along a path of increasingly dangerous retribution—the visual depiction of a young man with no support system feeling his way through volatile emotions speaks a language Brandon can’t yet convey with his words, or through the rap lyrics that run constantly through his mind.
As Brandon embarks on his quest to take back his shoes, the hard-earned symbols of material power that his beloved rap songs have taught him equate to masculinity, he begins to assert his own power in dangerous ways. What Kicks asks us to consider are the consequences of that school of thought: the idea that status can be reflected in a pair of shoes, or that manhood is earned through acts of violence and dominance.
Watching Brandon interact with, and then leave, the insular neighborhood he knows best is a treat for Bay Area natives who never get to see the rolling hills, shoreline waves, or, frankly, the grayish 1970s space caterpillar trains of the Bay Area Rapid Transit railway (or BART) depicted onscreen in films or TV shows. To get those Jordans back, Brandon’s personal journey takes him—in true Warriors fashion—on a trek across the East Bay itself.
BART trains are as iconic to Bay Area folk as the subway is to New Yorkers, only far less romanticized than the melting pot sardine cans of the NYC subway: The dated blue and black logo on white bullet-shaped trains, the soft whirring sound of trains pulling in and charging off, the mesmerizing rhythmic thuds as tracks take you across some of the most varied neighborhoods of any urban region in America. Across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco proper, way down the 80 Freeway past the urban sprawl of Oakland, tech-infused Emeryville, and progressive post-hippie Berkeley, is where you’ll find Richmond, California—at the very end of the BART line.
Three years ago, mainstream audiences glimpsed life in the East Bay for probably the first time in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, the true tale of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who died when he was shot by police, handcuffed and facedown, on a BART platform on New Year’s Eve 2009. In Fruitvale Station, the BART station was a site of tragedy and injustice. In Kicks, the trains are a symbol of liberation.
Brandon and his friends board one heading for Oakland, where Brandon hopes his estranged ex-con uncle Marlon can help. They might as well be setting off on a voyage to a far-off land. The crime-ridden streets of Richmond are no walk in the park, but Brandon and his besties have no idea how much deeper they’re going.
Tipping grew up in the East Bay and films Oakland with a respectful reverence for the people in it even as an air of menace hangs overhead. Despite increased gentrification in recent years, Oakland was deemed the No. 2 most dangerous city in America last year for the second year in a row (behind Detroit). Yet there’s a buoyant energy to scenes where Brandon rides along with his older cousins, vibing on the same Bay Area rap as he day-drinks lean and hits his first bona fide Bay Area sideshow, learning the true meaning of hyphy.
Ragen won the Best Cinematography Award at Tribeca for his work on Kicks, filmed on location throughout the Bay Area and populated with a supporting cast of local performers and musicians. He and Tipping also deserve kudos for being the first filmmakers in history to set a major dramatic scene at a sideshow, cars spinning and ghostriding as Brandon experiences abject highs and lows in a matter of seconds.
But there’s a dark side to that party life, a social phenomenon that’s long been a thorn in local law enforcement’s side. Even Mistah F.A.B., the Bay’s Crown Prince of hyphy, is trying to look deeper toward constructive efforts to build community rather than perpetuate the gimmicky antics he helped popularize a decade ago. (He also makes an appearance in Kicks as Crazy Daryl, the sneaker seller who offers Brandon those dream kicks with the line, “These cost more than your life.”)
It’s here in Oakland that Brandon also gets a harsh lesson from his aforementioned uncle, played with gripping complexity by the excellent Mahershala Ali. (An alum of House of Cards, co-star of the Matthew McConaughey drama Free State of Jones, and cast in Netflix’s upcoming Luke Cage series, Ali is also a Bay Area native born in Oakland who is having a banner year.) Like many of the film’s toughened characters—the brutal Flaco chief among them—Marlon unmasks surprising layers that add human dimension to this vibrant Bay Area parable about young men, the cycle of violence, and sneakerthirst.
With Kicks, which hits theaters in September, a new class of Bay Area filmmakers is crystallizing for the first time in a long time. There hasn’t really been one to boast of since George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola followed the counterculture to San Francisco in 1969, bringing their fellow New Hollywood film nerds with them.
Now its homegrown Bay Area talent making moves on Hollywood, led by 30-year-old Coogler, who stunned Sundance with his Grand Jury Prize-winning directorial debut Fruitvale Station and scored a studio hit in Rocky sequel Creed. Before him, San Francisco-based filmmaker Barry Jenkins put SF on the map with 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, about black urban twentysomethings negotiating race and place in the city by the bay.
Both have since been tapped for bigger projects, with Coogler directing superhero tentpole Black Panther for Marvel and Jenkins landing backing from A24 to direct his play adaptation Moonlight, starring Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, and Mahershala Ali. Tipping, who’s now based in L.A. but knew Coogler as kids before either launched their film careers, seems on track to follow suit. And when he does, maybe a new generation of Bay Area storytellers will emerge in turn, sparking a true Northern California movie renaissance.