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Discuss the people who make what we watch.

Do Spike Lee and Nike really want to remind us of those Air Jordans commercials?
Topic by: dwhudson
Posted: April 21, 2003 - 7:49 AM PDT
Last Reply: April 21, 2003 - 7:49 AM PDT

author topic: Do Spike Lee and Nike really want to remind us of those Air Jordans commercials?
post #1  on April 21, 2003 - 7:49 AM PDT  
On the occasion of Michael Jordan's retirement, Nike has created a mini-site featuring the commercials Spike Lee made for Air Jordans back in the late 80s. Not only can you watch them there, you can also fill out a tiny form and send an email heads-up about them to your friends. But besides the undeniable nostalgia factor here, these commercials carry with them considerable historical baggage -- and it ain't pretty.

Frankly, I'm surprised Nike wants to bring the matter up at all, much less remind all our friends. And I kind of doubt Spike Lee had much say in the matter.

There's a lengthy and thought-provoking reminder of the whole hoopla those commercials stirred up back then in a piece by an English prof named Jerome Christensen that ran in Critical Inquiry in 1991. Christensen rouses up all sorts of intriguing issues, but the relevant one here is that Spike Lee was promoting Nike shoes at a time when people were killing each other over them.

"Meanwhile," he writes, "after the film, outside the theater, away from the TV, shoes are bought. Many Air Jordans. Some with money earned by the sale of drugs. Shoes are stolen. Some from the dead bodies of black youths, who have been killed without any other narrative justification except their possession of Nikes and because someone's gotta have them. A happy ending?" Within another year or two, Operation PUSH, he reminds us, would be organizing a boycott of Nike.

Now, first, don't get me wrong. IMHO, Spike Lee is an important, provocative and accomplished director. Do the Right Thing is a classic of American cinema, thoroughly deserving of that Criterion treatment, and most recently, I've had positive things to say about 25th Hour, a film that grows in my mind rather than receding into distant memory.

I also admire the fact that, by teaching at NYU, Lee is giving back to the school and the community that gave something to him when he was starting out. And I know he's got to not only make a living but also finance films most studios are very leery of (the average cost of a Hollywood film these days is $55 million; 25th Hour cost $15 million -- and looks and sounds pristinely top-of-the-line).

But Lee pushed the wrong product at the wrong time. Some might say he was held to a harsher standard than a white director would have been, and all that can be said is that, yes, any director shooting commercials for SUVs or Big Oil or what-have-you ought to be facing the same sort of critical storm.

And I agree with Christensen when he writes: "It would be wrong to blame Spike Lee for failing to foresee the unintended consequences of his art." But I also agree with what he immediately adds: "It would be the right thing for Spike Lee to acknowledge that bad consequences have occurred. Even Exxon has gone that far."

To my knowledge, he never has. He can't be happy these commercials are being revived.

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