SPIKE LEE + JORDAN – 1989 TO ‘FLY 89’
A look back at the creative partnership that built sneaker culture, from the Air Jordan 4 in 1989 to today.
PHOTOS: SUE KWON
Do the Right Thing exemplifies Spike Lee’s unwavering passion for storytelling. First released in the summer of 1989, the film now serves as a time capsule of Brooklyn culture. As one of Spike’s most distinguished works, the film’s cultural impact has been analyzed from a variety of standpoints.
As Jordan releases the second installment of the AJ 4 ‘Motorsport’, the alternate, we look at the creative partnership between Jordan and Lee since 1989 and how Do The Right Thing and one of Jordan’s most iconic sportswear designs changed the sneaker game globally.
Coinciding with the release of the Jordan Fly ’89, the main floor of Spike Lee’s film studio, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has been transformed into the set of Do the Right Thing. Later, Spike will be joined by a group of journalists, style enthusiasts and fellow sneakerheads for a roundtable discussion on the evolution of sneaker culture from 1989 to 2017. But right now, he’s strolling around the studio and admiring the changes.
Stepping into a true-to-size replica of Mookie’s bedroom, Spike appears as if he’s been transported back in time. After studying the set’s details and commending the design team on a job well done, he sits down on a nearby bench to discuss the inspiration for his landmark film.
“I wrote Do the Right Thing in 1988, and it came out in the summer,” Spike explains. “So, it’s my third joint — the first one being She’s Gotta Have It, the second one being School Daze. I was happy I was able to make it. I’ve always wanted to continue rolling out films like Woody Allen did, you know, a film a year. So Do the Right Thing was the third film in that mindset: just keep making films.”
While the film is set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do the Right Thing underscores the racial tension that permeated New York City in the ’80s. The melee of violence that unfolds at the end of the film is an allusion to a handful of hate crimes that shocked the city during that decade. “That energy was pervasive all around New York City at that time. It was in the air,” Spike says. “I just knew that I wanted this film to capture what’s going on.
“I remember seeing [an episode of] The Twilight Zone where the scientist was doing a study that at a certain temperature homicides and stuff goes up,” Spike continues. “I always knew that when it gets hot in New York, if you step on somebody’s sneaker, or [get in] a fender-bender, it could end up with somebody getting killed. So I wanted Do the Right Thing to take place in the hottest day of the summer, on one block.”
Spike’s son, Jackson, arrives shortly after the conversation ends and joins his dad in Mookie’s bedroom for a photoshoot. The two crack jokes as Jackson reinterprets a few of Spike’s famous poses. Like his father, Jackson is passionate about cinematography, and has already directed a handful of music videos. However, his ultimate goal is to run a creative agency.
Jackson admits he didn’t view his father as a filmmaker until much later in his life. In fact, due to their R ratings, he initially wasn’t allowed to watch any of Spike’s joints. “I remember one time he brought me and my sister to see Inside Man. We snuck away from my mom; he snuck me and my sister in to see it — I was probably 10,” Jackson reminisces. Since then, he’s come to comprehend the impact of his father’s work.
“All my life, I’ve heard New York is the epicenter of the world. Growing up, I had that mentality, so I really took it to heart and really took advantage of the grind. I knew what New York had to offer, so I went after everything,” Jackson explains.
“I’m at school at NYU for film and television — it’s ultimately what I want to do with my life. I’ve been blessed to be able to be with my father on set and follow him around and learn from the best. My dad is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen — his work ethic is crazy. He doesn’t sleep. And he says it’s because he truly loves what he does. I really took that to heart. My dad, if you ask him, he says he really doesn’t work because it’s fun for him. Being on set at five o’clock in the morning, that’s what he loves doing. I’ve just learned to love what I’m doing and put 100 percent of my effort into what I’m doing.”
Contemplating his father’s legacy, Jackson posits that Spike’s greatest achievements – and his indelible mark on sneaker culture – are the result of his commitment to African-American culture.
“[My dad] is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, definitely — telling African-American stories and giving African-American people voices. If you went to a studio when my dad made Do the Right Thing and said, ‘I want to make a story about a small neighborhood in Brooklyn,’ the studio wouldn’t have done it. They would have been like, ‘Who’s going to see that? Why would people care?’ They didn’t want to do it — they weren’t interested in putting black faces on-screen. My dad showed them that they were wrong.
“When they first launched the ad campaign for ‘It’s Gotta Be the Shoes,’ for Mars Blackmon, Michael Jordan was offered a bunch of different people to do the ads. And just recently my dad asked Michael Jordan why he chose him. Michael Jordan could have worked with anybody in the world, but he still chose my dad. My dad wasn’t that known at the time. My dad asked Michael why he did it. Michael Jordan said, ‘Because you’re the only person that looked like me, and you were the only person that wore my shoes.’ There would be no sneakers if it weren’t for Michael Jordan. People thought that black faces didn’t sell. My dad and Michael Jordan proved people wrong.”
As the crowd starts to gather for the roundtable discussion, Spike exchanges handshakes, hugs, and jokes with the panelists, which include his longtime friend and fellow Brooklyn native DJ Clark Kent, who introduces himself to the audience as “Spike’s little homie.” The 49-year-old DJ is one of the few panelists who can speak from experience about New York City’s sneaker culture circa 1989. Shortly after the conversation starts, he seizes an opportunity to pay homage to Spike.
“You know what? Before you go any further, I think something needs to be said that’s extremely important,” Kent proclaims, addressing the audience. “The fact that we’re here talking about sneakers is because there’s something that’s called a sneaker culture. There would have been no sneaker culture if this guy didn’t make that shoe a character in a movie,” he says, referring to the Air Jordan 4s featured in Do the Right Thing. “I want to say thank you to you for turning the shoe into a character and making it not weird to really, really lust and want the shoes that way,” Kent continues, turning to Spike. “If it wasn’t for you, we’d have absolutely nothing to talk about right now, no matter what anybody thinks. We’d like shoes, and kids would like shoes, but we wouldn’t think it was something special unless it became a character, so good looking out.”
Spike humbly accepts the compliment before giving the audience a history lesson, recounting the story Jackson shared earlier. “I appreciate that, but we have to back up, because before Do the Right Thing, it was my first, She’s Gotta Have It … Mars was a b-boy, and Mars had to wear Jordans. In fact, I called Nike. I said, ‘Can you send me a pair of sneakers?’ We didn’t have any money. They said, ‘We can’t send no sneakers,’ but they sent me the poster. The poster with Mars on the phone and the big post behind him, that’s what they sent me.”
“This is history,” Spike continues. “Jim Riswold and Bill Davenport worked for Wieden + Kennedy. They saw the film and got the idea to pair the character I played, Mars Blackmon, with Michael Jordan. They called me up. They said, ‘We saw the film. We want you to direct these commercials in black-and-white. You direct them, we’ll write the scripts. You’ll play Mars. There’s one catch: Michael just signed a new contract.’ David Falk, his agent, had put in this clause that MJ would have director approval. At this point Mike had never heard of f—ing Spike Lee, had never heard of this f—ing movie ever.
“Two years ago, at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, I finally got enough courage to say, ‘Why’d you choose me?’ He said, ‘Because you were wearing the sneakers.’ It wasn’t planned, but after that, when we got together, the s__t just took off.”