Autobiography, a movie-geek sensibility, and cultural reporting on the Bay Area equally inform 31-year-old director Justin Tipping’s debut Kicks. Based on Tipping’s own experience of being jumped for his sneakers but with references to Federico Fellini’s 8½, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Kicks follows a 15-year-old through East Bay as he attempts to take back a pair of Jordans that were taken from him by some older guys. What emerges is a coming-of-age story in which lyricism and grit intertwine.
Tipping, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in East Bay and is of mixed heritage, is another non-black director to have made a film that centers on black characters (other recent examples include Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Richard Tanne’s Southside With You). Last month I discussed this with Tipping, as well as his overall critique of capitalism, and the dearth of substantial female characters in his film. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
Jezebel: When you were conceiving Kicks, did you ever get any pushback regarding the potential market for a movie solely about black people?
Justin Tipping: Never in my head was it meant to be an entirely black cast. It’s fine that it ended up being that way, but I think that speaks to the lack of diversity period in the casting system. We cast around the lead, Brandon, who I wrote as mixed—[actor Jahking Guillory who plays the role] actually is half-Guatemalan, half-African American. And then our other actor we had to cast around was Mahershala Ali [who plays Brandon’s uncle Marlon]. He grew up in Oakland. So then I had to cast African American cousins, and so forth. It became that way, but we were putting out calls for Pacific Islanders, all ethnicities. Our casting director, Kim Hardin, had done Hustle & Flow.
We just weren’t seeing... it just opened my eyes. Even me growing up, it was like, “Wait, you can be in film?” Reaching out to the communities and telling them it’s possible is one major step that I think needs to happen. More kids need to be aware that it’s possible to get into theater, get into acting, tell stories.
But was there pushback in terms of getting Kicks made?
Oh, for sure. I knew right away [with] the content and teenagers and all people of color, it was going to be really hard to get funding. People were like, “You can get this made, but if you want to get it made the right way, it’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of hustling.” It did. It wasn’t like one person was like, “Here’s a check, go make this movie.” We had no celebrity in it, and it’s hard to market [a movie without a celebrity]. No one talks about it, but that’s the truth. But films like Straight Outta Compton, Dope, and Fruitvale Station were happening, and people were like, “Oh, there is an audience. There is a market.” But we still didn’t have celebrities and we did have teenagers. It’s a really hard thing to sell to guarantee financiers get their money back.
What’s your racial background?
I’m Filipino, some Chinese and Spanish on [his mom’s] side. And then my dad is Swedish-English. The strange thing is that no one ever thinks I’m half-white, and I’ve gotten everything. I’ve been this racially ambiguous being my whole life. Even my nose changed. It was flat when I was zero to ten and then it popped out. I was very confused, I had a lot of identity crises. To that point, all my cousins are either half-black, half-Filipino, half-Mexican/half-Filipino, half-Irish/half-Filipino. I was kind of born into diversity, I guess. It’s also a great thing—I fit in with any group. I could just float around groups growing up. And then at the same time, I’ve experienced weird casual racism, or just blatant racism for things that I’m not. People think I’m Mexican-American, or Muslim. I was in Florida and someone yelled at me, “Go back to Cuba!” It was like, “What the fuck?” I turned and was like, “1) I’m not Cuban, 2) Maybe I should fight you on behalf of all Cubans?”
To see people pick and choose who they’re going to be tolerant of just drives me crazy, especially in today’s political climate. In the language of American history, in that discourse of race, it’s the history of black and white. So someone like me who might identify as Filipino as a nationality, culturally you’re just how you’re perceived to be. So the main lead [of Kicks] is mixed, but everyone thinks he’s black. My cousins who are half-black, half-Filipino, everyone thinks they’re black. People say, “Obama doesn’t acknowledge that he’s mixed,” but it’s like, yeah, he’s mixed, we get that, but you have to understand that your experience in the world and in America, walking your day to day life, you’re treated as you’re perceived. So if that’s your experience, that’s your experience. It’s not denouncing your background. I know who I am, I know who my dad is and love my dad, but he might have not had the same experience as I’ve had, for sure.
Did the fact that you are telling what is ostensibly a black story despite not being black yourself add a sense of responsibility or pressure?
It was always on my mind, but it never scared me. I grew up with black people, I went to a school that was predominantly African American. I have black friends. Also, the Bay and Richmond and Oakland are so culturally specific in that social context, the way people speak—it didn’t matter if you were a South Laotian gangbanger or not, if you grew up on a certain block in the hood, you would drop the n-word. People come up to me and say, “What’s up, Justin? What’s up [refrains from completing sentence].” I wasn’t raised that way, I never say that, but I could have maybe if I wanted to fit in or if I had to be hood for a second. I think it’s on a community-to-community basis. I knew that when this script was going to go out into the world, people would be like, “Tipping? What? What’s this guy’s story?” But it didn’t scare me. I would be dishonest if I didn’t let the characters speak the way they spoke in life that I knew. It would be disrespectful to try to pander or sugarcoat something. That’s not real, not real to the characters.
A lot of your characters are complex enough to seem like you were consciously resisting stereotypes when you wrote them.
I’m for sure conscious. The tragic part of Kicks to me is these kids are all born into this situation. They’re born into a community that’s been socially and economically isolated from the rest of the world, from generations ago. They’re just thrown into this situation and that’s a dog-eat-dog world without equal opportunity, a lot of disenfranchisement. I don’t show Brandon’s mother onscreen as an act of choice, because the cycle of poverty is intertwined with the cycle of violence. [You could] have a single-parent household, because Dad got busted for having weed on him, which is classified on the same level of heroin, so Mom can’t be home and she can’t afford daycare. When you’re just left there, you’re exponentially more likely to get in trouble if you don’t have support around. Also as a teenager if you’re gonna go do some crazy shit, you don’t go to your parents for help. It feels like a weird tunnel-vision world in adolescence.
[With the antagonist Flaco character] I think when you’re at that weird age when you realize for the first time that life’s not fair, and it’s like, “Damn, fuck, I can’t believe this happened to me,” but you’re not yet aware that everyone suffers. I remember hearing Lauryn Hill speak once about how the kids that were beating my ass, sometimes you have to think: What have they been through? It’s probably way worse than what I’ve dealt with. What does it take for somebody to want to exact violence on somebody nonsensically? Something must have happened.
Is the movie intended as a critique of materialism?
I think to an extent, it’s a warning for sure. When it comes to commodity fetishism, that’s when it gets scary. When just obtaining that one thing, that brand, you think will define you, whether it be Jordans in Richmond or a Ferrari on Beverley Blvd., or a Rolex on Wall Street—there’s always social signifiers that you try to elevate your status with. If you can’t afford the shoes, don’t buy ‘em. Save money.
That fetishism is also a symptom of capitalism. You can’t rake people over the coals for aspiring to own material goods in a country that tells you constantly that this is what you should aspire to.
Exactly. In the back of my mind, it was always like: Here’s the dark side of capitalism. It’s great for some things, but this is the culture we’re creating. You mix that with a culture of violence and it’s a volatile mixture.
Masculinity and what defines it are among this movie’s themes. Does that explain why your female characters are ancillary across the board?
Yeah. It was a really tough thing to handle, because I’m a feminist. If you’re not a feminist, what the hell are you talking about? You don’t like equality? In approaching it, it was like, this is the lens of a 15-year-old boy surrounded by other 15-year-old boys. I also have to be true to what they would do. I didn’t want to preach or throw something in that would make it inauthentic, but at the same time, I was aware of that. Every kind of brief brush by they have, I would tell the girls, “Always have the last word. Talk like the boys.” Girls can be violent. When Brandon hits Cameron with the basketball, she’s like, “You won’t hit him, you won’t hit him.” The rest of that scene she improvised. I told her, “Don’t let him call you a bitch. You call him a bitch.” They started firing at each other. I know it’s so minute in the grand scheme of things, but I was trying to give them a sense of humor and give them play, and I think the girl Brandon hooks up with ultimately, he doesn’t seduce her. He wasn’t like, “I got this.” She had the power. She was the empowered one in the situation. I think his mom, even though she’s not in the movie, is the strongest voice of reason. It’s just we’re only meeting her through his voice over. “I know mom’s gonna be mad...” “My mom says this, my mom says that.”
A lot of early Kicks reviews have called your debut “promising.” Does that strike you as condescending at all?
I try not to read ‘em, but I always do. I don’t think it’s condescending. I think it’s funny. I started looking up, like, what David Gordon Green’s first review was of George Washington, just to know. I go read The Hollywood Reporter review and it kind of tears the movie apart. Now it’s Criterion Collection and people are like, “Genius.” I take it with a grain of salt and think back on the other filmmakers who made their debuts. It’s OK. We’ll see.
Kicks is in select theaters today.