In “Air,” the new biographical sports drama about Nike’s 1984 effort to land an endorsement deal with then-N.B.A. rookie Michael Jordan, the Air Jordan is the sneaker holy grail. Designed by the eccentric genius Peter Moore, the sleek, stylish basketball shoe seems not so much created as discovered — as if, Moore says in the film, “it’s always been here,” much the way Michelangelo found his sculptures “already complete within the marble block.”
The film, directed by Ben Affleck, tells the story of how the Air Jordan came to be. If anything, the movie undersells the Air Jordan’s pop cultural significance: Almost as soon as the sneaker was released, it become a phenomenon, not only raising the ceiling for shoe sales but also redefining the very limits of footwear success. In the four decades since its debut, the Air Jordan has continued to thrive: Jordan Brand, now a subsidiary of Nike, earned more than $5 billion in sales in 2022. Retro Air Jordan releases often sell out in minutes, with aftermarket demand routinely driving resale prices into four figures and beyond.
Before its reverent screen treatment in “Air,” the Air Jordan already had an important place in movie history, as the unheralded star — sometimes central, sometimes lurking in the background — of countless motion pictures. To better understand how the shoe’s role in pop culture has evolved over the years, we looked back at some of its most notable big-screen appearances.
In a famous scene in Spike Lee’s Brooklyn-set “Do the Right Thing,” the chippy Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is looking fresh in a clean pair of Air Jordan 4s — until a run-in with a boorish local gentrifier (John Savage) leaves them lamentably scuffed. “You stepped on my brand-new white Air Jordans I just bought!” Buggin Out howls in outrage.
It’s an unforgivable affront, and one any sneakerhead knows all too well: Like a dent in a new car, a scuff is hard to come back from. And as the scene makes amusingly clear, a brand-new pair of Jordans isn’t cheap — even in 1989. “How much did you pay for those, man?” a friend asks, indignant on Buggin’s behalf. Other pals chime in: “A hundred bucks! American dollars! A hundred and eight with tax!”
This scene quickly achieved a kind of immortality among sneaker collectors, and in 2017, Jordan Brand paid tribute to the film with a special-edition release. The exclusive Jordan 4s were designed to look exactly like the ones Buggin Out wore — complete with replica scuff.
For Jordan’s much-anticipated screen debut, it was only reasonable that His Airness should don an exclusive set of kicks. “Space Jam” — in which Jordan, playing himself, helps Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes defeat the evil alien Nerdlucks on the court — saw the unveiling of the Air Jordan 11 in an exclusive white, black and purple colorway, featured prominently throughout the film’s climactic game.
Although the movie came out in 1996, at what was arguably the height of Jordan’s N.B.A. career, the shoe was not made available until 2000, when it instantly became a collector’s item. (It was rereleased in 2009 and again in 2016.) To this day, the Space Jam Jordan remains one of the most beloved editions of the popular silhouette — and the film remains one of the most enduring love letters to the beauty of the shoe.
‘He Got Game’
Spike Lee had deep ties with Nike going back to 1986 when he played Mars Blackmon in his debut feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” later reprising the role in a series of TV commercials for the Air Jordan. When he set out to make “He Got Game,” he leveraged that connection, managing to secure a pair of then-unreleased Jordan 13s months before they were available to the public or even worn by Jordan himself on the court.
Denzel Washington stars as Jake Shuttlesworth, a convict offered a chance for a commuted life sentence if he can persuade his estranged son, Jesus (Ray Allen), one of the country’s top high school basketball prospects, to enroll at the governor’s alma mater. Shortly after being let out on work release, Jake heads to a sneaker store, where the clerk (Avery Glymph) immediately shows off the latest Jordan model. “I was all about Jordans, and to have those shoes in my hands, knowing I was like the first person to hold them, was kind of cool,” Glymph told Andscape magazine in 2019.
‘White House Down’
The Air Jordan’s appeal is so democratic that in the action blockbuster “White House Down,” even the leader of the free world wears them. Jamie Foxx, as President James Sawyer, dons a pair of Air Jordan 4s in the fan-favorite Fire Red colorway, using them to sneak past armed terrorists during an attempted kidnapping and violent White House takeover. (“Get your hands off my Jordans!” Sawyer bellows, as one tenacious bad guy wrestles with him on the floor.) It’s a small appearance, but one that makes clear the Jordan’s ascendancy from basketball shoe to streetwear staple to common accessory with formal tailoring.
When Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a 15-year-old sneakerhead of limited means, lucks into a coveted pair of Air Jordan 1s for pennies on the dollar, they become his most prized possession, lifting his spirits and imbuing him with newfound confidence. He’s so in love with the shoes that he’s reluctant to do anything in them, sitting out a pickup game for fear they’ll get mussed. “They’re called Jordans,” his friend teases him. “He played basketball!”
“Kicks,” an indie drama from the director Justin Tipping, follows Brandon as he tries to track down his Air Jordans after they’re stolen by gangsters, an adventure that puts him in danger. The film shows how desperately a kid like Brandon can pine after Jordans, and how Jordans can come to mean much more than footwear. “They’re not just shoes,” Brandon asserts at one point, and the film compellingly demonstrates that truth.
The goofy sports satire “Uncle Drew” stars Dallas Mavericks point guard Kyrie Irving as the eponymous elderly basketball legend, a character he played in several popular Pepsi Max commercials in the early 2010s. But the movie is really about Dax (Lil Rel Howery), an amateur basketball coach with lofty aspirations who is struggling to make his sports dreams come true.
Dax works a day job at Foot Locker, where he’s prevailed upon by his team’s vain and entitled star player, Casper (Aaron Gordon), to use his insider connections to buy every player a matching set of Jordan 11s. It’s a staggering expense he can barely afford, and it fails to prevent Casper from ditching his team for a rival’s soon afterward. Interestingly, the sneaker itself is the rereleased Space Jam Jordan 11 from 2016, drawing a connection between Irving’s Uncle Drew and the classic Michael Jordan film.
The single most iconic screen Jordan since “Space Jam” arrived in the animated superhero flick “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The new Spider-Man Miles Morales (the voice of Shameik Moore) wears a pair of Air Jordan 1s in the original Chicago colorway, playfully loose, laces untied. (That is remarked upon so often that it becomes a running joke.) The sneakers are variously lingered over, zoomed in on and even featured prominently on the movie’s poster. The focus brought new attention to the classic sneaker, and introduced a generation of viewers to a shoe whose original heyday came before many of them were born. To commemorate the film, Jordan Brand released a special edition Jordan 1 with a distinctive webbed pattern, known as the Spider-Man Origin Story.