Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
The new movie “Air,” about the creation of Air Jordans, offers up a new genre: the anti-biopic. That’s true not least because we never see the star himself.
Rather than focus in on Michael Jordan’s foibles and flaws — the usual fodder for Hollywood films, it’s about the creation of what makes him him — a basketball superstar who is not only an exceptional talent but one who transformed the way American businesses do their business. Yes, Jordan is a billionaire, but he’s earned it. And that’s what is significant about his story and this movie: Those who do the work receive compensation for it.
That origin story centers largely on his mother, played forcefully by Viola Davis. Not only did she literally create him, of course, but she also contributed to his success. Yes, he has greatness, but Mrs. Jordan also has business acumen.
That worked with what Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball scout played by Matt Damon, and ultimately Nike, were trying and willing to do: build a brand around a person. It hadn’t been done quite that way before. And it served the purposes of the young player as the No. 3 draft pick in 1984, just as it served the interests of a sneaker brand that had little presence in the basketball market, one yet untapped among the Black community.
As Damon says to his old pal Ben Affleck (also the director), who plays Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight, what they have going for them is that Nike had no truly successful basketball shoes. Way to turn a weakness into a strength.
And that is a broader metaphor for what ends up being a historic moment in the history of sports, fashion and the world of work. At one point, the shoe designer Peter Moore says there’s only been one truly innovative moment in the long saga of shoes: the making of a left and a right for each pair. And that, he points out, happened 600 years ago.
But now, as the story unfolds, comes another, with significance not just for shoes but for the history of labor more broadly — the idea that those who do the hard work should be rewarded for their efforts. This innovation, which Jordan’s mother insists on to close the deal with Nike over its seemingly more attractive rivals Converse and Adidas, comes as the dramatic heart of the movie. And the closing credits reinforce the historic nature of this moment when we learn that Vaccaro, formerly known as the “sneaker pimp,” went on to fight a historic case against the NCAA to ensure that college athletes receive compensation for their moneymaking performances.
Of course, we also learn that the Air Jordan deal, sealed before the player ever set foot in the Chicago Bulls arena, translated into millions of dollars for Michael Jordan. And much could be said about his megastardom.
But the movie in the capable hands of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, working-class duo who came to fame quoting Howard Zinn to snobby Harvard University students in their breakout film, “Good Will Hunting,” know their history. Rather than sophomoric students, they are now grown up, and they can change their obscure pedantic references for subtle storytelling by way of invoking the “boss” — not Phil Knight, who is the film’s literal boss, but Bruce Springsteen, that iconic storyteller.
In a powerful scene, Jason Bateman, who plays a Nike marketing director, explains that rather than singing along to a patriotic anthem, he now realizes that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a song about disillusionment and disappointment with American ideals, that the Vietnam War as an imperial disaster is a broader commentary on what so much of Springsteen’s music is about: the struggles of the working man who has little control over his own destiny.
That changed with Michael Jordan’s contract. The working man got his due. Of course, Damon and Affleck can’t resist flaunting their lefty pedigree. In the same scene, Bateman acknowledges that the company benefits from the reliance on production of their products in sweatshops of South Korea and Taiwan. But that too is handled with subtlety. He does not footnote his sources. True, the New Left historian Walter LaFeber, not quite as famous as Zinn, but still an academic icon, had obviously not yet written his account of the global capitalism of Air Jordans. But the mention of production from developing nations is enough of a nod to the duo’s sophistication as students of history.
Also subtle is how the movie is most definitely of the current Black Lives Matter moment. It tells a true story that took place in 1984. But it also speaks to the inversion of power that is taking place in 2023. A strong powerful Black mother shapes the destiny of her Black son. This is a hopeful story.
For all the mothers we see on camera today, grief-stricken over the tragic deaths of their murdered sons, here Viola Davis flips the script and makes sure that fate deals differently with her boy. It’s not for nothing that the movie ends with a real-life tribute of Jordan honoring his mother. Of course, we also see President Barack Obama serving as a surrogate father as he places a White House Medal of Honor around the star’s neck. There is no chokehold or knee here.
In the end, the movie also functions as a nostalgic set piece. Members of the audience bop their heads along to the iconic music of the period, a playlist that is notably White. That’s not a simple whitewashing of history. It’s because the world of hip-hop and Black culture was just getting off the ground. And that kind of celebration of Black culture, even as it is commodified by corporate America, featured no less of a star than Jordan. He not only changed the game of basketball, but he changed American culture.
And Jordan also, at least in this telling, changed the world of work. Here is a 21-year-old kid who his agent tells all his suitors wants a fancy new car to sign on the dotted line. But really what motivates him and his foresighted mother is a desire for a cut of the deal. A shoe is just a shoe until the right man steps into it and gives it value, a line deployed at key moments.
Another key moment, which reinforces the difference between this movie and the conventional biopic, is when in short order Damon sums up the outline of every star’s life and therefore the narrative structure of every celebrity motion picture: the rise and the inevitable decline. But here that is not the main event. As Damon explains, it is the branding of Jordan that will make him not only rich but immortal.
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In that moment, it’s almost as if he’s teeing up Mrs. Jordan for the demand that she will soon make to give him a stake in the profits. Yes, Jordan has his fair share of missteps and setbacks off the court after a long string of successes. But his biggest triumph came with the way he changed the participation of the star — in this case a young Black man — in the making of his own marketing success.
I’d choose this subtle story over the usual biopic as both a compelling and realistic account of when history pivoted to celebrate those who would emerge from the shadows.