A new independent feature film set and shot in the East Bay explores violence, manhood and status sneakers in Richmond and West Oakland. "Kicks" is written and directed by Justin Tipping, who grew up in El Cerrito and was inspired by a real-life incident.
When Tipping was 16-years-old, he got jumped in a lonely parking lot in Emeryville. He got two black eyes and a split lip, plus teasing from friends. His brother tried to console him.
"He looked me in the eyes and said, 'It's OK. You're a man now.' And it was that exact moment that I’ll never forget. Because it did make me proud, and then it made me deeply saddened,” he said. “Why is masculinity always synonymous with violence? Why is violence always this defining factor of manhood?"
The film inspired by that real-life beating and that memorable conversation opened Friday at the Grand Lake Theater and the AMC multiplex in Emeryville, not far from where Tipping escaped with his Nike Air Prestos in 2001.
The main character, Brandon, hasn’t hit puberty yet and is too shy to talk to girls. He spends a lifetime of birthday money and candy bar sales on a pair of red and black "Bred One" Air Jordans.
In his new shoes, he has confidence, swagger and attention from the ladies. But then they’re stolen, and Brandon embarks on a journey from Richmond to West Oakland to find his shoes and get them back.
For the lead role, Tipping cast non-actor Jahking Guillory, who was 13-years-old when the movie was shot. He spends much of the film looking up to his best friends, played by Christopher Meyer and Christopher Jordan Wallace (who is the son of the Notorious B.I.G.).
"The character is this prepubescent kid who wasn’t yet as mature as his friends so the dynamic worked out perfectly," said Tipping. "There was an older brother-younger brother kind of friendship that developed on set. He constantly wanted to be like them just naturally."
Tipping said Guillory had his first kiss on set, but wouldn’t admit it at the time. His age proved problematic later, when three years after shooting, it was time to record the voice-over and his voice had changed.
He spent months during pre-production visiting after-school programs for teens to find other non-actors who to fill out the rest of his cast.
The director relied on friends and family to scout locations in Richmond and Oakland, and "show the other side of the Bay Area," he said.
Brandon roams ball courts and streets, homes and sideshows in the rougher neighborhoods of the East Bay, shuffling around in his mother’s slippers, because he doesn’t have another pair of shoes.
The man who sells him the coveted sneakers out of a van tells Brandon, “These are worth more than your life.”
The cast is almost entirely young people of color. The soundtrack is mostly hip-hop with a few local stars for those in the know.
"It was really important to be authentic to what I knew, to the world and kids I grew up with. To show Richmond and Oakland and the East Bay that doesn’t get representation on the big screen," Tipping said.
"Kicks" opens Friday in select cities. Tipping is taking questions about his film at the Grand Lake Theater after 7:30 and 10pm shows.