No one could knock the El Cerrito-reared director Justin Tipping (NANI) for avoiding Richmond, where, growing up, he regularly felt anxious about being man enough, or West Oakland, where he was jumped for his kicks at the tender age of 16.
But instead of running away from the Bay, the young director is confronting his trauma head on and reexamining the archaic attitudes behind such ongoing brutalities in his debut full-length feature Kicks, opening Sep. 9.
Believe it or not, the edgy portrait of a young man who’ll go to any lengths to recover his stolen Jordans is a love letter to the East Bay (with a soundtrack featuring locals like Mac Dre, IAMSU, Roach Gigz, Dave Steezy and NanosauR) that’s been catching buzz since premiering at Tribeca Film Festival, earlier this year. Tipping spoke to SF Weekly about turning his personal tragedy into a cinematic triumph and reinventing masculinity.
So we’ll start with what may be the most critical question. What shoes are you wearing, and how much did they cost?
I’m wearing my retro Jordans. They’re specifically the Lab 4s with the patent leather. I feel like they’re my tuxedo sneakers where they’re still sneakers but they’re kind of shiny, so they’re dressy but not.
I actually jumped a kid for them on the way over here, so they cost nothing. [Laughs] No, they were $300 plus.
So you grew up in El Cerrito, on the border of Richmond. The movie is inspired by an experience you had getting jumped for your Nikes in West Oakland. How did that pivotal experience shape who you’ve become?
Just growing up in the Bay Area shaped my character and emotional intelligence in terms of empathy because I grew up in such a multicultural and multiracial place.
But getting jumped and always living my adolescence through high school with anxiety around trying to figure out the extent to which I had to purport to be hard or hood definitely made me look at my own self. The idea of masculinity kept coming up in my own curiosity of why we function in the way we do in society. So whether I liked it or not, it had this indelible effect of making me want to question societal norms because I completely disagree with the way we speak about a lot of things—not just masculinity, but also race and gender and everything in between from a young age.
Was it hard to reexamine a very personal trauma in a movie all these years later?
Yeah, I can’t say it’s not weird to air out all your demons. But I’m also aware that that’s the burden you take on as a filmmaker or any artist. You’re searching for some kind of truth, and so the fact that I’m uncomfortable even talking about it is a good thing because it means I’m doing something that’s honest. At the same time, it’s strange. It does bother me, but I’m aware of it, so it puts me at ease.
I’ve read that aside from the three main leads and two supporting actors, everyone else in the movie had never acted before. Why did you choose to work with mostly non-actors discovered in Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco?
It was important to me because this movie is set in such a specific world and social context that if it’s inauthentic, then you can tell immediately. So I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a mix.
The great thing about working with kids who’ve never acted before is that they haven’t been through any kind of weird training or geared toward Nickelodeon or Disney, so they were authentic. They knew the world because they were of the world.
What was amazing was how it was a collaborative process. I learned quickly to just do scenes in the reality of the situation where they’d do what they’d do in the real world and I’d move the camera around them. That way you’re getting a pure performance.
You even make a cameo appearance in the movie. Are you pulling an Alfred Hitchcock on us?
I definitely Hitchcocked my way in. It was part necessity and part the film geek in me was nerding out and was trying to Hitchcock it with a quick cutaway. But it was also that we had to run in and grab those shots, so it was also to expedite it.
Richmond is one of those cities that many of us have heard horror stories about but have never been to. Is filming parts of Kicks in Richmond an attempt to pull back the curtain on a city that’s still shrouded in mystery?
All of my friends were from Richmond, and there were certain blocks that were totally fine and some blocks that you knew you couldn’t go to because there were turf wars. Specifically, in developing the movie, the Bay Area was going to be a character. Everyone’s definitely heard of Oakland. Richmond has a similar but still unique history and background, so it was important that it could be shown onscreen and be seen because no one sees it.
When I was in high school, they’d do the top 10 most dangerous cities, and it was always Oakland and Richmond. The tragic thing about Kicks is that the kids are born into something that America created with systemic racism, blockbusting and redlining and are now just starting to talk about fixing. They are important worlds and important stories to be told for people of those worlds, where it doesn’t have to be the nightmarish place in the distance, where you can actually tell a story and immerse someone in it, so they can feel empathy for what these populations are going through.
All these years later, it seems like society’s definition of masculinity is still very narrow.
I don’t think it’s expanded at all.
Do you wake up each morning feeling masculine?
Not by society’s definition. But at the same time, I’m now aware that I am who I am and it doesn’t matter what other people think. I’m confident in my own definition of what it means, so in that sense I wake up and don’t think twice about it. The only thing I think about is how to change everyone else’s minds.