Writer/director Justin Tipping still remembers the day he got a brand new pair of Nikes and the moment he got jumped for them in a park in West Oakland.
But it wasn’t so much the encounter itself that sticks in his memory. “That was something that happened often,” he tells loaded. “It was the aftermath of it…the humiliation.”
Years later, as a young filmmaker keen to make his mark, he hit upon the idea of channeling his own experience into a modern tale, where the stigma of being a young male, assaulted and stripped of his prized shoes, is the ultimate insult – and why exactly that is the case.
“It was that humiliation that inspired me to go back and revisit that story and question why there is still that cycle of violence. Especially now that it’s all proliferated online,” he says. “We are all addicted to this content of humiliation and bullying.”
The result is Kicks, a modern coming of age story starring Jahking Guillory, Christoper Meyer and CJ Wallace as three young men on a quest to reclaim a prised pair of sneakers taken from the movie’s protagonist Brandon (Guillory) just hours after he bust a gut to buy them.
At the heart of the story is Brandon’s unerring quest to reclaim those sneakers, whatever the risks. Because, as Tipping explains, sneakers equate to so much more than just fancy footwear for those living in urban communities like Oakland.
“In those neighbourhoods, sneakers are the ultimate social symbol or signifier for status,” Tipping explains. Brandon is helped along the way by two friends Albert and Rico, giving the story a feel Tipping describes as something approaching “Boys n the Hood meets The Goonies.”
While all three leads are relative unknowns, Wallace brings something extra to the role in the fact that he also happens to be the son of Notorious B.I.G. one of the most iconic rappers of the 1990s and a looming presence over much of his son’s life to date.
Even during filming, Wallace recalls how he would be accompanied to set by Lil’ Cease another rapper who shot to fame as part of Biggie’s Junior Mafia collective.
“He was my chaperone,” CJ explains. “I wasn’t 18 yet so I needed someone to be with me on set at the time, so I had my uncle come out there. He was a member of my dad’s group Junior Mafia in the 90s and hadn’t been back to Oakland since early 2000s. Every time he was on set, everybody was just really happy to see him.”
Not that Wallace was incapable of holding his own, as Tipping noted from the moment the budding rapper and now actor came in to audition.
“CJ brought a lot to the role of Albert. On the page I imagined something different but in the audition he brought something different. He made the character his own.”
Wallace’s rap background – he’s recorded several songs already and has been tipped for big things – also helped when it came to improvising lines with the character of Albert expected to provide some of the film’s comic relief.
“He had the whole set cracking up the entire shoot,” Tipping recalls, “because you never knew what he was going to say.”
But while Albert’s role is a comedic one, Tipping and CJ both hope the film hits home with a message that goes beyond the danger of equating your life to shoes.
“I hope that when it cuts to black that a dialogue can be started with young men and youth that the cycle of violence can end,” Tipping says. “It’s trying to figure out the conversations that need to happen in order to get there.”
“I just hope it starts conversation and builds some deeper connections between friends,” CJ adds.
Tipping already has another film out in the US, called Lowriders and is also working on a top secret comic book project with Sony.
As for CJ, he’s busy trying to make it as an actor and musician. After seeing his star turn in Kicks, something tells us he may just do that.
KICKS is available on digital download now.