Director of 'UNBANNED: The Legend of AJ1' Decodes the Air Jordan 1 "Religion"

“It’s gotta be the shoes!”

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Footwear 
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For over 30 years, the Air Jordan 1’s lore has continued to elevate the sneaker into the upper echelon of iconic silhouettes, a small group that includes industry shifting models like the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star and Nike’s Waffle Trainer. Sure, Michael Jordan‘s superiority is undeniable, he deserves every mention with the greatest athletes to ever compete, but the true reflection of his cultural influence comes from a pair of sneakers that many initially thought would collect dust on retail shelves.

Filmmaker Dexton Deboree shared these same sentiments, however as a longtime sneakerhead, the inconsistencies around the Air Jordan 1’s origin story troubled him — how could something so impactful still be such a mystery? As a result, Dexton wrote and directed UNBANNED: The Legend of AJ1, which premiered at 2018’s Tribeca Film Festival.

While searching for legitimate answers, Deboree sat down with the likes of Aleali May, Spike Lee, Va$htie, Phil Knight, Anthony Anderson, Tinker Hatfield and the man himself Michael Jordan, among many others. In our exclusive interview with Dexton, we discuss how he found those answers, the process of making the film, his thoughts on the Air Jordan 1’s influence on various realms of culture, and much more.

“It was this thing that bugged me, this idea that no one could really give me an answer on why — why is it like a religion to a certain extent?”

Could you give us a quick background about yourself?

My name is Dex, or Dexton Deboree. I’m a writer, director and producer. I went to film school back in the day to be a director and then got into journalism for a while. I was a freelance journalist for a number of years and then stumbled into advertising. I always wrote a lot on the side for plays and films and got some things made. Then I had the chance to start my own company, actually, I bought an existing company and took it over with a partner. We started transforming it from a production company to a hybrid production/creative agency. We started working directly with brands and doing strategies and conceptual development, and then we would make our own stuff instead of hiring other people to do it.

About four years ago I got a call from a friend who took a job at Jordan Brand and he contacted me with interest in what I was doing. So we went up there and did a couple of projects together and it worked out really well, which would lead to more and more. So I’ve been working with him for about four years. I’ve worked alongside Nike, Apple, Major League Soccer and other brands. I really wanted to focus on visual storytelling. Just straying away from the normal 60-second ad and moving towards more long-form content.

In working with Jordan for a number of years, that kind of brought up this question. I was getting to know the brand and getting to work with MJ himself at times. It was this thing that bugged me, this idea that no one could really give me an answer on why. Why is it like a religion to a certain extent. MJ is the greatest of all time, I got that. You have fans from way back that’ll attest to that, but that explains part of it. Then you got sneakerheads that view his sneakers as the coolest on the planet, I got that. But it still doesn’t really explain the deep reach where you have women, kids, all ethnicities and people connecting to it on a level that has nothing to do with basketball, nothing to do with sneakers and that’s what made me ask why.

I posed that as a question and said let me go make a movie about it, and visual storytelling is what I do and what I’ve always done and that was the only way to answer the question for me. It was natural for me to make a movie about it. I flew out to Portland and told the guys I wanted to make a movie and they told me to go for it. So I did and here we are. I think the movie answers the question in my opinion.

What were some of the challenges you came across during the development of the film?

I think the challenging part was trying to figure out how to keep the story focused. I have 70 hours of footage that I had to cut into 90 minutes of the final film. There’s gems in the rest of it. There’s things that people said on camera that would make another entire movie. I had to make hard decisions, especially towards the end. There was a point to where the movie was a little bit over two hours and we had to tighten it up as much as we could and it was still almost two hours. I literally had to take out an entire half-hour and it felt like choosing a kid not to take with you on the journey. That was tough and I’ve heard filmmakers say that before, but when you have your editor even say “dude, we can’t cut that,” it makes it even more difficult.

When I think of things that I found along the way, I knew that I wanted to make the movie ‘cause I thought there was a deeper answer, but I didn’t know what that deeper answer was. What I found was that the shoe truly had its own destiny, a spirit of its own. There was an idea of it before it was someone’s idea and then it brought hesitant people together. It’s almost like the shoe itself brought these huge names into a situation they all didn’t want to be in. Then it comes to life and has a ton of resistance to it, from the league or just people doubting it in general. It could’ve been shut down at any moment. But the shoe was like “Nah, fuck that, I’m going to happen.” I think that’s a testament of it coming into the world because it was meant to be.

Putting sports to the side, how do you feel about the state of sneaker culture today?

I think it’s reached a point where it’s a little over-crowded, maybe for the wrong reasons. On the good side, there’s an energy and awareness that’s peaked beyond what it used to be, and that’s cool. It’s great that a large group of people can have a strong affinity to a specific subject matter or items that bring them joy and connect them to other people and essentially build its own community. Those are positive things. In this case, there’s nothing negative about sneakers, they’re just fun and colorful and you have all these different specs and colorways that people can geek out on. It’s better that those in the community are doing that rather than doing something that’s dangerous. As long as people aren’t hurting others, then it’s good.

In terms of where the culture is in relation to having positive role models, movements and moments, I think that’s where it gets cloudy. It’s a reflection of culture at large. Now, people get famous for stupid shit. You have someone on one hand winning championships and earning their keep, where today you have someone acting a fool and that’s “cool.” I don’t thank that’s good for any of us. You have kids looking up to people who you would never raise them to do the same thing. I think sneaker culture can fall victim to that at times. Guys just talking shit just for the sake of talking shit, then a shoe gets popular off of that. I think the focus should be on the designs, the consumer, problem solving and the shoe looking badass. That would be more powerful than placing emphasis on someone who has the loudest mouth. That’s the only part I don’t like about sneakers right now and it’s literally happening today.

How was it like working with Michael Jordan, has he seen the film?

I don’t know if he’s seen it yet. Some of the closest people to him have seen it and they love it and they know he’s going to love it. His business partner has been a huge supporter throughout the process and saw an earlier rough cut and was heavily involved by letting me know which part they liked, didn’t like, etc. She’s not an easy woman to please. She’s has very strong opinions, so when I get the seal of approval from her, it means a lot. I’m looking forward to him seeing it because I’m curious what his thoughts will be. I’ve had him view other pieces of my work before and he’s commented very favorably in the past.

Were you starstruck?

I wasn’t starstruck. I’ve shot a lot of people up to this point, but it was definitely another level. I can only imagine it being in the same realm as someone like Barack Obama for example. I looked up to him as a kid ‘cause I didn’t have a dad around and here’s this guy that’s like a superhero. I also had a job to do and I was respectful of that. He’s such a commanding force that you feel his energy being in the same room with him. It isn’t just about his game, he walks in the room and he has the energy that makes you feel that someone is in the room and there he is.

UNBANNED The Legend of AJ1 Dexton Deboree Interview Michael Jordan Air Jordan 1 footwear 2018 vashtie phil knight anthony anderson virgil abloh lebron james spike lee tinker hatfield aleali may

ALEX LAU/HBX

Today a lot of people place LeBron James in the category of MJ when it comes to a strong influence in sports and footwear. What’s your take on that?

I feel that it’s trying to compare two different worlds. I think it’s a statement to where we’re at in the world today. It’s almost impossible to compare them side by side. When MJ was coming up, there wasn’t a predecessor in the same way. Chuck Taylor had nothing to do with creating the shoe. It rang with people in the basketball community because people knew his name and that it was affiliated with the sport. Coming from that level of simplicity, it grew to using an athlete being a vehicle to sell a shoe and MJ created a totally different ballgame. It was trial and error. It was like a “hey wouldn’t this be cool?” kind of thing. Nobody knew. I thought I was going to sit with Phil Knight and he was going to tell me “yeah, we had this vision for Michael and we’re going to strap this rocket to his back and go to the moon and the rest is history.” That wasn’t even the case. He didn’t even want to do the deal and he wasn’t completely sold on Michael yet.

You almost can’t repeat that because the world has changed. Now that that’s happened, there’s this idea that athletes are actually brands within themselves. It changes the dynamic. You’re no longer trying shit. You have a plan because you have an idea of the outcomes that may happen. Everyone’s got expectations, a plan, an agenda. It’s like a startup that begins as small talk and just takes off. Mark Zuckerberg was trying to create his own social community and then in turns into a huge business. LeBron never had that luxury of having that open space of creating a sneaker that represents himself and have people respond to it naturally. The approach has changed to what LeBron’s shoe is going to be and what it’s going to say about him. Then you position that with his gameplay and all sorts of things. It’s a different dynamic and I think the other side of those expectations just add more pressure.

I haven’t worked with him personally but I’m pretty sure he’d rather not be the next MJ, but be the only LeBron. For him to create a shoe that stands out and stands up to his gameplay is a fucking tall order. Because of those pressures, it puts a different context on the intention and how you go about it. If you say “I’m going to make a shoe that lives up to the player I admire,” that’s different from saying “I’m going to make a shoe that’s personal to me and makes a statement or just reflecting his personality, family or his city.” MJ was just going with the flow and learned over time to use what he liked or what influenced him into the story of his shoes. I think the stakes are higher for LeBron. He can do the same thing but…

Then if he tries, people will just say it’s been done already.

Exactly.

“If [Kanye's] going to start saying [he's] doing better than MJ and the Jordan Brand, talk to me 30 years from now. Are you still doing that?”

Going back to the film. For people who may not be the biggest followers of sports or footwear, what are some of the things that you hope they take away from seeing it?

I hope that the biggest message everyone takes away is the fact that education, tolerance, progress, change and many other things can come in many forms. In this case, a shoe did break down a lot of barriers. It acted like a connecting web for all races and genders across time for people to find a common ground. For a shoe to do that is amazing.

Me and you may actually think that we don’t like each other, but the fact that you’re wearing the same shoe that I have on means I’m at least going to open my mind up to the possibility that actually might not be true. Suddenly anything is possible from that point. If I think I’m not even going to speak to you and then one of us says “Hey, nice shoes,” next thing you know we’re interacting and we end up having 17 things in common. If we wouldn’t have had the shoes on that door would’ve never been opened. That to me is life changing, and it happens on a personal level for a lot of people and even on a global scale. You even have other people who were influential in their own aspects around the world who were also inspired by MJ, the shoes and identifying with it. All of a sudden we realize we all have something in common and we don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that everyday.

A prime example of figures in today’s age breaking down barriers, such as MJ, is Virgil Abloh and his recent move to Louis Vuitton. What are your thoughts on that?

He blew it open. I think he’s a prime of example of how you can take something and pay real homage to it but still reinvent it, which is really difficult.

Especially since there’s been so many collaborations and colorways on the Air Jordan 1, it makes you think “Damn, how come it took so long for this to happen?”

And to do that and wildly not fuck it up is the remarkable part. He could’ve went in and just destroyed it and made it “different.” But it wasn’t just different, it was the cool kind of different. To me, I looked at it and said “How come this wasn’t done like 10 years ago?” It’s awesome. It just looks great. I think it’s exciting. In the world of sneakers we can still invent and reinvent things that are fresh and exciting just the same as it was when the AJ1 initially dropped.

It’s almost perfect that he’s at Louis now. It’s the sign of the times. 20 years ago a designer that was doing Jordans wouldn’t be at Louis Vuitton. Now it’s like “yea of course he’s doing it, why not?” It shows how much both the high-fashion world and streetwear influence one one another.

Do you think there will be another athlete to have the same influence as MJ?

The world will never be exactly what it was back then and we can’t undo that. I do think that it’s possible for someone to come along and have the same impact and influence. I wouldn’t compare the two though.

It’s interesting today that everything is overproduced and over-planned everywhere, even when you look at parents raising their kids. The moment your kid picks up a ball you plan to make him/her the next star. Just chill out and let it happen. Even with guys that come into the league they try to map everything out beforehand. That wasn’t even a question 30 years ago.

Why do you think Kanye West continues to pit adidas against Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand?

It’s a game. That’s exactly how the game is played. First of all, I think he’s talented and definitely a musical genius. I don’t love all of his music, but I do think he’s a musical genius. He’s been able to reinvent himself time after time and I have a ton of respect for him as a musical artist and he’s made a lot of kickass shoes, but he’s a few years in. If you’re going to start saying you’re doing better than MJ and the Jordan Brand, talk to me 30 years from now. Are you still doing that? If he is, then hats off, and you got it man, but to talk like that a few years in and maybe have a good quarter or a good year, it’s a lot. Next year it might be right back in Jordan’s court. As a businessman, you can’t celebrate a successful season two games in. Talk at the end of the season when you win that championship. I think it’s too early now.

It would be different if he came out and said he wanted to be the greatest. You could doubt it or believe in it, but it would be looked at as confidence in comparison to what some think as arrogance at times. But to knock someone else down also comes down to the intention. I think there’s too much negativity in it.

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