Justin Tipping’s debut feature-length film, Kicks (opening Sept. 9), follows Richmond teenager Brandon on an East Bay odyssey to recover his new, and only, pair of shoes. It's a coming-of-age movie. But the choices Brandon makes on screen reinforce the idea that a violent solution to conflict is the only solution. To become a man in Kicks, aggression is a rite of passage.
Kicks is the third in a recent spate of debut features set in Oakland and Richmond neighborhoods. Like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Jason Zeldes (Romeo is Bleeding), Tipping demonstrates a precise sense of place, as well as a personal intimacy with the people of the East Bay. All three of these films are energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, which offers a shorthand to group them together. But it is in response to themes of violence that the films differ greatly, both in terms of narrative style and the disparate emotional responses each story evokes.
Kicks draws from Tipping's own experience growing up on the El Cerrito/Richmond border. Like its predecessors, Kicks captures the look and feel of specific East Bay neighborhoods by examining their geographical and emotional microclimates. “Where I grew up, it was two blocks that way, we cannot go. And two blocks that way was a whole other world," Tipping says. "The one intersection you had was public school. There you met so many people from all walks of life.”
Brandon is shorter than other kids his age, and there are many predators. Tipping too was once easy prey. Of the event that inspired Kicks, he says, “It was the first time I had saved up and bought my first pair of Nikes. They were all white, coke white, as they say. You have to keep them clean. That's what singled me out. There was about ten kids that piled out of two cars. First thing I heard was, ‘He's got the Prestos.’ I got stomped out and beat down.” And so does Brandon.
Unlike Brandon, Tipping didn’t seek revenge. The film, however, depicts a punishing sense of physical violence. When an uncle offers him a gun, Brandon momentarily pauses then reaches for it. Kicks sidesteps nuance in favor of action. Brandon's frustrations overrule his common sense, and chaos ensues.
In 2013's Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler chronicles the last days of Oscar Grant’s life before he was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Coogler’s script humanizes Grant, giving him flaws and strengths. The film also nags at your conscience: What if he’d kept his job, stayed in the East Bay, or taken a different train? It doesn’t absolve Mehserle of fatally shooting Grant in the early hours of New Year's Day in 2009, but Coogler leads us to believe that opportunity is fate: if given the chance, or even a second chance, we can have healthy, productive lives.
In Jason Zeldes’ 2015 documentary Romeo Is Bleeding, the director tells the story of Donté Clark, a poet and playwright based in Richmond. Clark lives in the middle of a turf war. His art is thriving because of an educational opportunity, but he’s also struggling to remain hopeful about the violence in his community. One of the promotional images for the film shows Clark posed in front of a BART map. The photograph draws an immediate and provocative parallel to Grant's fate. While school may be a safe space, getting there and back is not.
Of these three films, Kicks intends to reach an adolescent audience. From the settings (high school, playgrounds, urban streets) to the language and music, to the lack of any lingering adult presence, the filmmaker works hard to create a brutal yet relatable world for Brandon to be adrift and alienated in. But the more complex task of engendering talks about cycles of violence after the credits close seems unlikely.
Tipping remembers coming home to his brothers after his Nikes were stolen. “They were trying to console me and make me feel better," he says. "They looked me in the eye and were like, ‘It's okay. You're a man now.’ It was that moment, specifically, that made me want to tell this story. At that moment I was proud, but at the same time, deeply saddened. In retrospect, it made me question why is violence synonymous with masculinity.”
Similarly, Brandon’s two best friends keep picking him up after he’s beaten down. He may be bloodied but they laugh it off. It’s how they cope. And maybe kids in the audience who know this world will be laughing too.
But it isn’t funny. In real life, the weight of some imminent threat, of living an unprotected life, is terrifying. The director claims that in depicting the use of guns he wants the audience to “have a discussion of ending the cycle of violence. Gun violence is this other epidemic.”
If Tipping wanted the audience to engage intellectually with Brandon’s dilemma, did he think of giving him another option to pursue, one without guns? “No," Tipping says. "That would be a boring story.” Both Coogler and Zeldes might disagree.
Kicks opens at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, Friday, Sept. 9. For tickets and more information visit renaissancecerialto.com.