Back in 1991, Public Enemy's Chuck D made his sneaker statement pretty clear in Shut 'Em Down: "I like Nike but wait a minute/ The neighbourhood supports so put some money in it." A decade or so later, The Pack would seem to follow Chuck’s advice: "Man, we be sporting Vans and we throw away Nikes/ If you wanna get right, stop buying those Nikes." Sneakers quickly became an emblem of subcultural identification and youth tribe membership, and embraced by everyone from B-boys to graffiti artists, skaters and punks, hip-hop and indie kids, gym bunnies and basketball fans.
The humble sports shoe started life as a plimsole, and it was only in 1873 that we started calling it a sneaker (or trainer/ running shoe). A process discovered in 1839 called “vulcanization” (after the Roman god of fire) made the sneaker sole a possibility: rubber suddenly became less sticky and more flexible, perfect for shaping to fit the human foot. With its origins firmly entrenched in the middle of the 19th century, these kicks have followed key cultural and societal shifts, such as a post-industrial transition from rural to urban life, the individual pursuit of physical fitness as quasi-religion, mass advertising and the birth of “the teenager”, and finally the hipster commodification of cool.
Sneaker culture as we know it is rife, and modern cinema probably has quite a lot to do with it. A talking head in Femke Wolting’s documentary Sneakers (2004) notes that, “Shoes are like you say the limousines for your feet. Sometimes you can’t afford four rubber wheels so you get two rubber heels, and that’s how you get around”. So dust off your Nike Air Jordans and reach for your Reeboks, as we trace the freshest kicks in town.
1. Back To The Future: Part II (Robert Zemeckis 1989)
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Nike were a match made in product placement heaven. In the first film, Marty’s white Nike Bruins with a red swoosh confirmed him as one of the ultimate '80s teen boy icons. But it was his travels to the year 2015 in the sequel that really confirmed the partnership. Marty discovers some futuristic self-lacing Nike trainers with a sweet luminescent logo, and simultaneously becomes the envy of schoolboys and sneaker aficionados everywhere. The legendary shoe was created by shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, and Fox had to wear a battery pack with wires running inside his trouser leg to light up the shoe, due to the limited technology of the time. Look how we’ve evolved.
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)
Confused deep sea explorer (Bill Murray) and his team are looking for a jaguar shark, and some nifty footwear is a necessity. Team Zissou sport some custom-made Adidas with a blue and aqua-blue colour combination (that’s “colorway”, if you wanna talk the sneaker design speak) and bright yellow laces. For me, this film sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but I’ve got to give it to Wes, the footwear is fresh.
3. Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour, 2013)
With her black Converse with bright purple laces, tomboy Wadja asserts her independence at home and at school, only to incur the wrath of a stern teacher. The archetypal rock ‘n’ roll shoe becomes the symbol of a young woman’s rebellion in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
4. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
When you’re blasted into the future without any threads on, there’s only one thing to do. Nick some Nike Vandals from the nearest mall and start kicking some android ass.
5. High Hopes (1988, Mike Leigh)
Lost and naive Wayne (Jason Watkins) wanders the quiet, grotty streets of Kings Cross, lost in the Big Smoke for the first time and wearing the garish combination of a sheepskin jacket and these amazing neon orange Nike Omega Flames. Whooda thunk that a Socialist classic could deliver so high in the sneaker stakes?
6. Juice (Ernest Dickerson, 1992)
Starring Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps, Dickerson’s film about the trials of inner city life in the ‘hood, offers up a key sneaker scene early on. Q (played by Epps) asks his little brother for advice on what sneakers to wear. Medium shorts of several fly Reebok pumps follow (including the Twilight Zone, Omni Zone and the SXT), until he rightfully settles for some sleek Nike Baltoro boots.
7. The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985)
Poor Data got a rough ride in the ethnic stereotype stakes. But at least he got to wear some awesome Nike classics, and his own invention: the “Slick Shoe”, a reworked pair of Nike Sky Force Hi’s.
8. It’s Simple, Darling! (1993)
This arguably doesn’t count as cinema, but Zsa Zsa Gabor’s legendary '90s exercise video is a worthy contender for top sneaker style AND sharp as a diamond one-liners. Seriously, if you haven’t watched this, you SIMPLY HAVEN’T LIVED. Zsa Zsa “nine marriages” Gabor shows you how to stay “young and beautiful forever” not to mention “drive your man crazy” with a series of jaw-droppingly easy exercises. Coordinated by two very camp and testosterone-pumped blokes called Mark and Francois (all three are in matching sneakers, FYI), we get some total gems of romantic advice: just don’t expect PC with Ms Gabor, daaahlink.
9. Spike Lee Films
This list could easily turn into a Spike Lee love-fest, so we’ll reign it in. Lee’s debut film She’s Gotta Have It (1986) kick-started a lifetime’s cinematic ode to the sneaker, with sweet Nike Air Jordan I’s, captured in black and white. In Do The Right Thing (1989), a pasty bicyclist treads on Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito)’s “brand new” Nike Air Jordan 4 Cements, and unintentionally kicks off a streetside debate about the gentrification of Brooklyn. In School Daze, there are some classic Nike Dunks, and some Air Jordan II’s polished to perfection. He Got Game (1998) sticks to the basketball sneaker of the late '90s – such as the Nike Total Max Uptempo and the Foamposite Pro “Pearl”, proving that Jesus is ‘on the ball’ when it comes to both game and sneaker choice.
10. Kill Bill Vol. I (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Uma Thurman’s vengeful Bride busts some balls in these yellow low-top Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66 sneakers. While matching her famous fighting suit and in true Tarantino style, these shoes also reference Bruce Lee’s black and yellow fighter footwear in Game of Death, as he kicks ass in a pair of Onitsukas (the Tai Chi range). Both are going for the bumblebee look, clearly.
11. The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
He might be a member of the physics club, but Brian Johnson’s sweet blue Nike Internationalists make him stand out as a grade A dude.
12. White Men Can’t Jump (Ron Shelton, 1992)
...but at least they can try to fit in with a pair of beat-up high tops, like Woody Harrelson does as streetball whizz kid hustler Billy.
13. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Ageing actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) digs deep into his existential ennui in a pair of Nikes Air Woven.
14. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) rocks the techno-futuristic vibe in some black and silver Adidas Officials.
15. The Sandlot (David M. Evans, 1993)
Benny brings out his secret weapon in jumping over the fence and saving a ball signed by baseball legend Babe Ruth from a huge mastiff known as “The Beast”. The only “shoes guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher”: the one-and-only PF Flyers.
16. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Without a doubt the uniform of the sk8r boi, Jeff Spicoli’s checked slip-on Vans are the sole necessary accompaniment to smashing bongs and eating pizza.
17. Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn, 1983)
Rising stars of the graffiti, hip-hop and b-boying world were filmed by Ahearn’s roving camera in the South Bronx. Legends such as Lee Quinones, LADY PINK, Busy Bee, the Rock Steady Crew, Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash and the Cold Crush Brothers show off some fancy footwork in this incredible document of the early days of hip-hop.
18. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates”. And also a pair of Nike Cortez too, apparently.
19. New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
Charting the rise and fall of an inner city crack dealer, Mario (son of legendary blaxploitation director Martin Van Peebles) made a film laden with violence and big names like Ice-T, Bill Nunn, and a baby-faced Chris Rock in a pair of Adidas Phantom Hi hi-tops.
20. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
In a lush sequence set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy”, Marie A (Kirsten Dunst) and her friends get ready to go out as Coppola captures a colourful montage of gorgeous period shoes, cakes and champagne (just to confirm those double X chromosomes). A pair of pale blue Converses appear by her feet, indicating Coppola’s revisionist approach to history as well as emphasizing Marie’s youthful abandon. By engaging with an American emblem of adolescence, Coppola transforms a leading historical figure into an Everywoman, a young and mumbley American teenage girl.
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