A span of four weeks in summer 1986 was important in reshaping the shoe endorsement for good. When future music mogul Lyon Cohen helped take Adidas executive Angelo Anastasio to Run-D.M.C’s Madison Square Garden leg of theirRaising Hell tour on Saturday, July 19, it led to a pioneering hip-hop and sportswear endorsement deal that resulted in its own series of shoes and apparel. It was a particularly high-risk move, not least because of the controversy after violence during the tour’s stop at Long Beach Arena on August 19. 11 days earlier, Spike Lee’s confrontational indie film about sex, empowerment, and identity was released. This wasn’t the squeaky-clean brand connection of old — as with Anastasio’s Adidas work, it was something of a step into the unknown.
She’s Gotta Have It would earn a staggering $7 million at the domestic box office. The Jordan fixation definitely didn’t end there. Lee’s next film, School Daze, was made for a comparatively colossal $6.5 million and shot in the spring of 1987. An unorthodox musical drama about racial divisions and college life, it’s a confrontational piece of work. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Nike Dunks (it is set at college after all) and, in a scene set in Larry Fishburne’s character dorm, one of his friends is seen lovingly cleaning his Air Jordan IIs.Wieden+Kennedy’s legendary copywriter and creative director Jim Riswold was key to bringing Spike and Mike together to advertise the next Air Jordan — a pivotal reboot of the line that would help send the franchise global. According to Riswold’s account of the project’s genesis on W+K’s blog last year, seeing a commercial for She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 piqued the attention of he and producer Bill Davenport enough to make them make a trip to the cinema to see it a little later. Those shots of Mars’ feet made enough impact for them to phone Spike to see if they could potentially work together.
Filmed in December 1987 and debuted in February (the same month that School Daze was released), the commercials featuring Mars, now a hyper enthusiastic super fan, and his hero were uniquely irreverent and integral to showing viewers a side of Jordan that might have gone unseen. A perfect accompaniment to the Air Jordan III’s offbeat looks, it offered an extension of the She’s Gotta Have It universe that assumed the viewer was, as Mars would put it, already down.
A year later, a TV spot ahead of the February 15, 1989, release of the Air Jordan IV even brought Nola back. The other object of Mars’ affection was seeing Michael Jordan — a twist ending of sorts, three years after that movie ended.
Speaking to an African-American audience rarely acknowledged, but integral to turning performance shoes into must-haves, Spike’s work with Jordan set the standard culturally. We exist in a world where constant social debate regarding the money that Kanye West’s influence brings to a burgeoning brand shows no sign of stopping. There were, by all accounts, numbers to back up the impact of the Jordan and Spike ads. That blitz of late 1980s campaigns that Riswold was key to (including Bo Knows) were reportedly key to expanding an industry market share that was 3 percent ahead of Reebok in 1990.
Looking back at She’s Gotta Have It, thatit would sow the seeds for something that would ultimately shift a lot of shoes was no surprise. Tracy Camilla Johns, who was so magnetic as Nola, only having six acting credits to her name on the on the Internet Movie Database is a total mystery. Hollywood’s subsequent preference for hood-took-me-under cliché over angry auteurs or creativity when it came to black American cinema was a depressing inevitability. But Spike Lee’s impact on what kids lineup for today is entirely understandable.