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Air Jordans and Blackness in Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Hate U Give

Laita Barrett, University of Florida

It is no secret that Hollywood has a diversity problem. According to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report of 2020, only 3 out of 10  leads in film are people of color. Although this proportion is ridiculously low, it seems that Hollywood is beginning to realize the importance of representation because it is making progress in diversifying its movies. In 2018, Into The Spider Verse and The Hate U Give were released which both feature a Black lead character. Of course, film-makers of both movies recognized that just having a character with a dark skinned complexion wasn’t nearly enough to be considered representation.  Therefore, film-makers utilized aspects of Miles and  Starr’s wardrobes, specifically their shoes, in an attempt to emphasize their Blackness. Even though both films took similar approaches, Into The Spider-Verse uses Miles’ shoes as a way to elevate his character with a significant detail of Black culture while The Hate U Give heavily inflates Starr’s sneaker obsession making the effort feel like a parody of Black culture.

To begin, it is important to note that the film-makers didn’t just choose any shoe when designing the main characters’ costumes. The shoes that Miles Morales and Starr Carter are sporting throughout their respective movies are Jordans.  In order to discuss what effect the use of  both characters’ shoes have on the films, one should understand the cultural relevance of Jordan sneakers in the African American community.  Modern sneaker culture originated in the 1960s around the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War and continued to grow in the 70s as Hip Hop started to become more popular (King). In 1984, the first pair of Jordans were created exclusively for the legendary basketball player, Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan, at that time especially, was an icon for Black youth that represented greatness and success (Smith). Therefore, wearing his shoes was like having a symbol of hope and status. Thus, it is no surprise that Jordans made their way into rap music and Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop and Rap music largely glorify wealth and status with the lyrics and videos having a significant focus on money and cars (Funktasy). Artists latched onto Jordans as another way to convey this aspiration of success to listeners. When you look at the context in which Jordans became popular, it is easy to see why Black youth love those shoes as much as they do. Sports, especially basketball, are Black dominated and the same goes for rap music. Seeing prosperous Black people wearing Jordans made the Black youth feel as though they could rise to a similar status if they were wearing them. The importance of Jordans in the Black community is especially seen in how people wait days in line to get their hands on a pair and how, in some cases, people have gotten killed over them.

To further analyze the differences in the utilization of Jordans for Miles and Starr’s characterization, it is important to discuss why they chose to include them in the first place. Both movies are adaptations, but in the Spider-Man Comics by Brian Bendis, the illustrator draws Miles without his famous Jordans. On the other hand, it is evident that Angie Thomas always intended for Starr to have a Jordan obsession. When creating an adaptation it is important to consider the target audience and to understand that it exists in a specific time, place, society, and culture — not in a vacuum (Hutcheon 142). The creators of the movies Into the Spider-Verse and The Hate U Give probably considered this and determined that to create a movie with a Black lead character in 2018 meant to include some of the elements of Black culture in modern-day Brooklyn (Into the Spider-Verse) and Georgia (The Hate U Give).  Therefore, the decision to have both characters wear Jordans in their respective movies was most likely an attempt by film-makers to emphasize each character’s racial identity by highlighting a key aspect of Black culture. They recognized that just having a Black main character wasn’t enough to be genuine representation and strived to present both Miles and Starr in a way that would allow them to better connect with Black youth. Although both films made an effort to utilize elements of Black culture, how Into The Spider-Verse incorporated Miles’ Jordans into the scenes felt more natural and realistic compared to how The Hate U Give chose to show the shoes’ cultural significance.

For the entire length of the movie, Miles is wearing a pair of Air Jordan 1 Retro Highs in red, black, and white which is the same shoe that Nike created for Michael Jordan in the 80s. The film-makers draw viewers’ attention to them in the most subtle ways, but still make it obvious that his shoes are important when it comes to characterization. In the opening scene, Miles is sitting in his desk drawing and listening to music. First, the camera gets closer to Miles so that we can see his face and then it pans around the room to give viewers an idea about who he is. During this pan, we see posters on the walls, books on the floor, and Miles’ Jordans sitting atop the books almost as if they are on display. The camera stops briefly on the shoes twice. The fact that this happens within the first three minutes of the movie suggests that film-makers were trying to put emphasis on them. The beginning scenes in a movie are usually reserved for getting to know a character on a basic level and used to establish identity. So, even though some viewers might not catch the cultural depth of this prop right away, they know that it is important to Miles.

To continue, as Miles is walking to school, the camera focuses on his shoes just as much as it focuses on the setting suggesting that both are equally significant to Miles’ character. On the busy sidewalk of his Brooklyn neighborhood, the camera zooms in and follows Miles’ shoes before it shows the people who are in the background. When he jumps up to put a Hello, My Name Is sticker on a street sign, our eyes are drawn to his shoes because the camera is at a low angle and when he finally trips on his untied laces, we are forced to pay attention to his Jordans. The fact that the camera zooms in on them at moments that are seemingly insignificant compared to other points in the movie shows that they serve a purpose in developing Miles’ identity.

The most telling piece of evidence that exhibits the prominence of Jordans in Miles’ life is that he keeps them on even when he has on the Spider-man costume. As Miles continues to grow and learn as Spider-man, his Jordan 1s are on his feet. When Peter B Parker teaches him how to swing and he masters the task of climbing buildings, the camera follows his shoes accordingly showing that even though he is Spider-man, he is still Miles and he is still Black. The subtlety of the Jordans’ significance is what makes their inclusion special. The film accomplishes the goal of making Miles’ blackness more believable without using many words to over-explain the importance of his shoes.

On the other hand, Starr’s love of Jordans is drastically less subtle and more blatant, but the fact that her interest in the shoe brand is noticeable isn’t what makes the effort ingenuine. Rather it’s the overemphasis of her sneaker infatuation by film-makers (and even Angie Thomas herself) that gives this detail an inauthentic impact. Starr is also wearing Jordans for most of the film. For her, Jordans are an everyday shoe. At the beginning of the movie, we watch as Starr gets ready for school in her room. When it’s time to put on her shoes, the camera pans over about fifteen pairs of Jordans lining her wall. Based on the interpretation of bedrooms mentioned in the Into The Spider-Verse analysis, we know that it was a deliberate decision to show the audience all of her Jordans because they are an important and unique part of Starr’s character. Similarly, as Starr walks into Williamson, the camera follows her feet as she walks through the halls making sure to zoom out at some points to show her choice of shoes in comparison to her white peers. In a place where she feels like she has to minimize her blackness, she feels comfortable expressing herself through her Jordans.

However, the over-exaggeration begins when Starr sees her boyfriend Chris making his way towards her locker. A slow, romantic song plays in the background as Chris approaches her and Starr begins to swoon over him. The camera zooms into his feet as she says, “Damn, he’s wearing the same Space Jam 11s as mine. He knows Jordans are my weakness.” Although some may feel that that line was endearing, I think film-makers stripped away Starr’s depth by suggesting that Chris’ choice of footwear was one of the main reasons why she liked him.  It should also be noted that Chris is white and there’s something superficial and, almost disrespectful, about putting him in Jordans, a staple of Black culture, and calling him her dream guy for that reason. When you remember that the movie is supposed to be using Black culture to better relate to a younger Black audience, to suggest that Starr would find a boy irresistible because he’s wearing Jordans is harmful. It reduces her judgment to something based on materialism which is stereotypical and a clear misunderstanding of Black culture and Black people.

In addition, when Starr sees Khalil at the spring break party and she accidentally steps on his brand new, clearly expensive shoes, she immediately gets down to try to clean them off because “Every time a sneaker is cleaned improperly a kitten dies.” Although some may claim that this statement was meant for comedic effect, when you think about the significance of Jordans in the Black community, it seems like the film-makers might’ve been making fun of the culture that it’s drawing from. This claim is confirmed when Khalil calls her a “sneakerhead” which is a term (usually said with a negative connotation) that is used to refer to someone who is addicted to sneakers– especially Jordans.

When compared to one another, Into the Spider-Verse utilizes Miles’ Jordans in a way that emphasizes his Blackness and uplifts his character. The Hate U Give merely attempts to do the same and misses the mark at several plot points. But it’s important to remember that this misstep is made up for in other aspects of the movie. The issues that The Hate U Give highlight are unique to the Black experience. Therefore, it is easy to remember that Starr is Black. Into the Spider-Verse, however, has to put more effort into things like costume to remind viewers of Miles’ racial identity since it’s a superhero movie. Still, the fact that film-makers chose to stay true to Starr’s Jordan enthusiasm described in the book means that they should’ve made greater efforts to ensure that the script underscored that part of her accurately. Instead, their attempts were forced and misrepresentative.

In conclusion, although Hollywood is making strides in producing content featuring Black leads and main characters, they still have quite a long way to go before they truly get it right. The differences in how Black culture is portrayed in Into the Spider-Verse and The Hate U Give through the utilization of Jordans is just one example of that. The sneakers are a familiar part of Black youth culture and were supposed to serve as a method of relatability. However, through the analysis of the use of shoes with Miles Morales and Starr Carter, one can see that how you use aspects of a culture have an effect on how it is received. The subtlety of Miles’ attachment to his shoes accomplished the goal of representation while the over-exaggeration of Starr’s sneaker infatuation was unrealistic and, at some points, crossed the line from being a portrayal of Black culture into being a mockery of it.

Works Cited

Hutcheon, Linda. Theory of Adaptation. Taylor and Francis, 2014.

King, Jemayne Lavar. “Black History Month Op-Ed: The Evolution of Sneaker Culture.” Footwear News, Footwear News, 1 Feb. 2019, https://footwearnews.com/2019/influencers/power-players/jemayne-lavar-king-sole-food-johnson-c-smith-university-black-history-month-1202736737/.

Smith, Jay Scott. “Air Jordans Are More than a Sneaker to Some Blacks.” TheGrio, TheGrio, 28 Dec. 2011, https://thegrio.com/2011/12/28/air-jordans-are-more-than-a-sneaker-to-black-community/.

Ramsey, Peter, et al., directors. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sony Pictures, 2018.

Tillman, George, director. The Hate U Give. Temple Hill Entertainment, 2018.

“Why Wealth Is so Important to Hip Hop Artists.” Funktasy, 14 Aug. 2019, https://www.funktasy.com/wealth-important-hip-hop-artists/.

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