Spike Lee has been a distinctive voice in American filmmaking for more than 30 years, challenging audiences to question the world around them. He intertwines important social themes with a distinctive visual style and on-screen energy that still influences up-and-coming directors today.
The director’s great love outside of movies is basketball, specifically the New York Knicks. He also has an ongoing love affair with all things Nike and Jordan, and often receives special Air Jordan models straight from legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield and Michael Jordan himself.
Lee's relationship with His Airness started with his appearance as Mars Blackmon (a character from his film She's Gotta Have It) in the now-iconic "Spike and Mike" Jordan ads that started with 1988's Air Jordan 3. Later, in 2006, Jordan and Lee released their own model dubbed the Jordan Spiz'ike.
That love of sneakers has crept into Lee's movies, especially those earlier in his career. Many of his films are full of sneaker references and appearances, even being central to some key plot points. Here, we break down the best sneaker moments found in a Spike Lee joint.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Key sneaker appearances: Nike Air Trainer 3 “Medicine Ball,” Nike Air Jordan 4 "White Cement," Nike Air Revolution, Nike Cortez, and many more
Lee’s masterpiece about simmering racial tensions in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is told in the span of one hot summer day. From the storyline and acting to the iconic costume design of Ruth E. Carter (now an Oscar winner for her work on Black Panther), Do the Right Thing remains as fresh as it does poignant 30 years on.
One of the film's key plot moments relates to a pair of Air Jordan 4s, when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito, aka Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring) frustratedly tells a stranger, “You stepped on my brand-new white Air Jordans I just bought,” with many a sneakerhead wincing in solidarity. That moment even inspired Nike to release a super-limited edition "Buggin' Out" Air Jordan 4 in 2017, complete with scuff mark, green, yellow, and red lace accessories, and toothbrush (as used by the character to clean his kicks).
The movie is chock full of other sneakers, including the Nike Air Trainer 3 “Medicine Ball” worn by Spike Lee’s character Mookie. That model has been retro-ed a couple of times, and in December 2018 we learned that another retro is on its way.
Radio Raheem’s Nike Air Revolutions also feature memorably. Meanwhile, pizzeria owner Sal keeps things classic with the Nike Cortez in a white/navy colorway. The Sal's Famous Pizzeria uniform worn by Mookie has also inspired two limited edition Air Jordan 4 colorways, both of which are believed to be dropping in April this year.
Elsewhere, the movie sneaks in a trove of other Nike offerings, including the Greco Supreme, Air Play, Windrunner, and Air Force 2, making Do the Right Thing one of the Swoosh's preeminent moments on the silver screen.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Key sneaker appearance: Nike Air Jordan 1 "Royal"
Lee's debut feature She’s Gotta Have It, about Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three lovers, launched the auteur's career and gave the world Mars Blackmon. Mars is one of Nola’s guys and undoubtedly a prototype for would-be sneakerheads and fuccbois to come. When Mars and Nola are seen having sex in a scene, Mars’ feet remain planted firmly inside his beloved Air Jordans, making it clear he isn't taking them off for anyone.
In 2017, Lee adapted the film into a Netflix series featuring a whole host of statement sneakers, but this is where it all began. The OG Mars, of course, returned in the years after She's Gotta Have It in Nike's Air Jordan ad campaigns.
He Got Game (1998)
Key sneaker appearances: Nike Air Max Uptempo 97, Nike Air Jordan 13, Nike Air Foamposite One “Royal,” Nike Air Foamposite Pro “Pearl,” and many more
If you thought Do the Right Thing was sneaker-heavy, think again. He Got Game, Lee’s only true basketball-themed film, stars NBA All-Star Ray Allen, Denzel Washington, and a welter of basketball models. Allen plays the country's top high school player, Jesus Shuttlesworth, whose convict father Jake (Washington) can get his sentence cut if he succeeds in influencing Jesus' choice of college.
The Air Jordan 13 has the film's key sneaker moment, with an entire scene dedicated to purchasing a pair. Jake gets giddy trying them on, not letting his ankle monitoring bracelet get in the way of what he wants. Jesus wears a huge range of Nikes throughout, including the Air Max Uptempo 97 and Air Foamposite Pro “Pearl.” Jesus’ cousin Booger also sports a "Royal" pair of Air Foamposite Ones.
Elsewhere, Jesus is seen sporting the Total Max Uptempo and Air Movin’ Uptempo, as well as the Air Hawk Flight in his final matchup against his dad. Booger shows up in the Nike ACG Zoom Terra Sertig and Jake dons Converse Chucks while still in prison. A throwback scene showing Jesus and Booger as kids features early ’90s Nike models, the Quantum Force 2 and Air Sonic Flight. Other players in Jesus’ games are seen wearing the Jordan Jumpman Team 1 and Air More Uptempo.
School Daze (1988)
Key sneaker appearance: Nike Air Jordan 2, Low-top adidas
Wedged between She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, School Daze might not draw the same fanfare as the other two movies, but its themes of race and division at a historically black college are still relevant today. Likewise, the colorful costuming, once again by Lee collaborator Ruth E. Carter, and production design are as memorable as other Lee movies of the era.
The sneaker moments in School Daze are subtle but say a lot. The Air Jordan 2 makes an appearance in a dorm room scene in which one character is busy cleaning his kicks with a toothbrush (foreshadowing Buggin' Out's woes in Do the Right Thing) and there’s also a cameo by a Nike Dunk in red and white. Additionally the Gamma Phi Gamma pledges are wearing what appears to be adidas Sambas. For a character to wear three stripes in a Spike Lee film, the subtext speaks volumes.
For a deeper dive into Air Jordans, watch the video below.
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