Greatest Sneaker Moments in Movies

Greatest Sneaker Moments in Movies

July 15, 2021

With the new Space Jam movie starring LeBron James on the horizon, it is almost impossible to ignore the significance of the original movie from 1996. Back before the internet was made widely available to the general public, sneaker fans would only occasionally get brief glimpses of special and limited edition sneakers on TV and movies. Having their very niche interest being represented in mainstream media was always a special experience for generations of sneaker collectors past and present.

Whether the sneakers in question were a quick shot, or an entire storyline revolved around them, the rare looks at sneakers in movies would always serve a purpose in the greater scheme of the subculture. Sometimes, a special prop shoe becomes a reality. Sometimes, a previous model gains popularity. And sometimes, the shoes in the movie serve as a character themselves or create a device for character development.

Let’s take a look at some of the greatest sneaker moments in movies.

*Note* Some spoilers ahead.

Life Imitates ArtLife Imitates Art

“What are those?” may be a meme by today’s standards, but back before we had unlimited access to information about sneakers, movies were the only media that may feature a specific shoe that’s nowhere to be found in real life. And sometimes, the interest and demand for these iconic “props/ costumes” become a reality for fans of both film and sneakers. It is often through the very vocal community of sneaker collectors that lead to certain models of these footwear to see the light of day and in the hands of the public.

Nike MAG - Back to The Future 2 (1989)

One of the absolute GRAILS in sneaker and prop collecting history is undoubtedly the Nike MAGs. Michael J. Fox as “Marty McFly” donned the iconic Nike sneakers designed by the legendary TInker Hatfield in a scene where Marty had to “disguise” himself as a resident of the future… in 2015. Most notable features of this fictional (at the time) sneaker were the light up elements, and of course, the self lacing mechanics that eventually led to a tech that Nike has included in their general line up in the last few years. The Micahel J. Fox Foundation for the research of Parkinson's Disease treatment has hosted 2 seperate releases of the Nike MAG to raise funds. In 2011, 1500 pairs were released via eBay auctions which raised $4.7 million. They once again hosted another release where a self-lacing model was made available via raffle in 2016.

Back to the Future 2 (1989)

Reebok Alien Stomper - Aliens (1986)

Tough characters need tough shoes. In the case of Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, in 1986’s “Aliens,” Reebok was commissioned to create a work boot that suited the character and aesthetics of the film. Having distinct features of both retro and futuristic, the Alien Stomper saw very little screen time. But the cult following of the film franchise led to demands for Reebok to release a retail version of the sneakers to the public. It was not until 20 years later on April 26, 2016, now referred to as “Alien Day” where Reebok finally released a retail version for the sneaker community and film prop aficionados to collect. One misstep that raised controversy with the release was quickly brought to attention. Reebok had released the original Alien Stomper in men’s sizes only despite the film being a forefront in celebrating one of the strongest and legendary female protagonists in movie history.

Aliens (1986)

Nike Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” - Space Jam (1996)

Timing is always key to a movie’s success. And “Space Jam” released at the height in popularity in a number of key demographics. The sport of basketball, the NBA, Michael Jordan, and sneakers. All these key ingredients were baked into a fluffy kids movie starring one of the greatest athletes of all time. Although the sneaker heavily featured in the film debuted on court a year prior, it was not until “Space Jam” released where sneakerheads got a good look at them. The movie was released in 1996, during the Bulls legendary 72-10 season and the year of the Air Jordan 11. The previously unnamed sneaker very soon adopted its moniker “Jordan 11 Space Jam” after the release of the movie. The color combination and the popularity of the Air Jordan 11 made the Space Jam 11’s a “must have” for sneaker collectors everywhere. Unfortunately, this specific colorway remained a player’s exclusive until 2000 when they hit the shelves to feverish interest. Subsequent releases in 2009 and 2016 also became instant sell-outs and have often been in discussions of “greatest sneaker of all-time.”

Space Jam (1996)

Nike Air Jordan 13 “He Got Game” - He Got Game (1998)

First movie on the list by director Spike Lee, “He Got Game” starred Denzel Washington and NBA star; Ray Allen. In a memorable scene featuring Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, the character is seen in a sneaker store purchasing the “latest Jordan” at the time. Although the shoes had already made their way onto the hardwood the previous year on MJ’s feet, it wasn’t until the movie’s release when they were given the nickname “He Got Game.” Since the release of the OG’s, the Air Jordan 13 “He Got Game” has stuck with the name to this day.

He Got Game (1998)

Paying Tribute

Paying Tribute

To see a pair of sneakers you recognize on the big screen was an exciting moment for sneakerheads. The filmmaker is clearly acknowledging a demographic not often recognized in mainstream media. Fully realizing the significance of the “prop” often rewards the audience with an additional understanding of the intent of the scene as well. And sometimes, filmmakers pay tribute to the sneakers and their place in history.

Nike Air Jordan 4 “White Cement” - Do The Right Thing (1989)

The second film on the list directed by Spike Lee is about a day in the interconnecting lives of a culturally diverse set of characters in a record-setting heat wave in Brooklyn. “Do The Right Thing” was released in 1989 which featured one of the very first scenes in a film where a sneaker was at the forefront of the device driving the plot. Giancarlo Esposito’s character “Buggin’ Out” can be seen wearing a fresh pair of Air Jordan 4 “White Cement” when a Boston Celtics fan scuffs the toe box with his bicycle. Although on the surface, this scene was a setup for comical relief, it was more appropriately viewed as a message about social, race and age segregation. The cultural significance of this scene would be later celebrated with the release of Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordan 4’s in 2017 which featured a red, yellow and green lace crown as well as a pre-scuffed toe box.

Do The Right Thing (1989)

Vans Checkerboard Slip-On - Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Raunchy teen slacker movies defined an entire genre in the 80’s. The popularity of 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was a prime example of how a movie that related to a young audience for its time can reach legendary “cult” status. The stoner archetype character of “Jeff Spicoli” played by a young Sean Penn embodied an entire generation with his portrayal of said traits. And his fondness for the Vans Slip-Ons immediately connected with the youth which identified with the 80’s California lifestyle. Reportedly, the film doubled the value of the brand after it's release. In 2020, a “Fast Times” commemorative Slip-On was released to forever acknowledge the importance of that film to the brand.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

Nike Cortez - Forrest Gump (1994)

Sometimes a character is beloved not through their relatability, but their overall actions throughout the film. In 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks plays a lovable “simple minded” Alabaman who has very few goals and talents, but eventually finds a way to succeed in style. The movie, which won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, is about a man who discovers that his love for running, and a woman named “Jenny” were all he needed to complete his life. The former of his passion eventually granted him opportunities otherwise seemingly out of reach, and it’s the latter of his love that enabled his running with a fresh pair of Nike Cortez. The classic white, red and blue Nike Cortez was gifted to Forrest so he can further pursue his passion for running and the specificity of the sneakers brings the era accurate shoes to life in the scene. Since the Cortez, originally released in 1972, was considered a running shoe for high level athletes (at the time), it is through this gesture that we find out more about how Jenny feels about Forrest’s potential. One pair of shoes, symbolizing all that is important to a man.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Nike Air More Uptempo - George of the Jungle (1997)

It’s not always about plot development or character driven arcs that feature specific props. Sometimes, it’s just good ol’ fashioned product placement. Nevertheless, in 1997’s “George of the Jungle,” actor Brendan Fraser plays the titular character who has never experienced city life but has a knack for the adventurous lifestyle instead. In the scene, Scottie Pippen’s NBA Championship winning sneaker; the Nike Air More Uptempo, is delivered to George in which it seemingly grants him an extreme sense of enthusiasm to test out their speed and vertical advantage. Although it plays out more like a mini commercial for Nike, seeing an iconic shoe on screen in a Disney movie was still exciting for unassuming sneakerheads in the theater.

George of the Jungle (1997)

Building Character

Building Character

A lot of different aspects can define a character. The way they speak and act, the conflicts they encounter, and the way they dress. Certain pieces of costumes and props can tell the audience a lot about the character in a movie. And when it comes to sneakers, having a very specific look or style can help subconsciously reveal a lot more than having it explicitly communicated on screen.

Nike Air Command Force - White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

When you think of an elite basketball player, you think of finesse and style. But looks can often be deceiving, as illustrated in the 1992 movie “White Men Can’t Jump.” Woody Harrelson plays a streetball hustler named Billy Hoyle. And to make sure he lures in the “whales” with his ability to convince streetballers that he will be an easy target to exploit, he has to look the part as well. Dressed in floral patterned shorts, a tie-dye cap and the Nike Air Command Force, the look drew the attention he needed and helped Billy bait in players to face-off in a cash exchange challenge. Although the “goofy” stylings of Billy may be comedic on screen, the overall message of the fashion contrast portrayed by the characters was in line with a “white athlete vs. black athlete” narrative that was very evident in the title of the movie. One iconic scene has Wesley Snipes' character pretending to “pump up” Billy’s shoes before his failed attempt at dunking the ball.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

 Nike Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” - Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

The most recent release on the list sees a young Miles Morales in his transformation from “average high school student” to “superhero.” 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was the first big screen representation of a non Peter Parker Spider-Man. Set in Brooklyn, Miles is seen on his way to school wearing a pair of Air Jordan 1 “Chicagos.” Having such an instantly recognizable sneaker was the filmmakers way to connect the character to his surroundings and set the attitude of Miles that will be relevant in his decision making throughout the film. The overall look and feel of his costume (the non Spider-Man costume) was integral in defining his culture, background and fashion sense as a character. Although the original designs of the costume had Miles wearing generic sneakers that were “Jordan 1 like,” Sony and Nike ultimately made a deal for the iconic sneakers to be featured in the film. The resurgence of the Jordan 1 can be attributed to the success of this film, and to recognize its importance, Nike released the Jordan 1 “Origin Story” in the likeness of the Chicago 1’s which are now considered to be the “unofficial, official” sneakers of the film. In a notable scene, Peter Parker mentions to Miles that his shoes were untied, to which he proclaims that “1’s don’t really need to be tied.”

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chi - Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Having a character defined for their fondness of a character from another film is pretty meta. As is the case with 2003’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” directed by Quinten Tarantino. The movie, which was subsequently broken up into 2 volumes, has Uma Thurman’s “The Bride” take revenge on her former squad of assassins. In the climax of the film, our protagonist has to fight her way through a gang of katana wielding Yakuzas in order to get to her target of the mission. But since this is a Tarantino film, she has to do it in style. Dressed from head to toe in a black striped yellow tracksuit, her footwear of choice for the action scene were the Onitsuka Tiger “Tai Chi’s.” The costume was an obvious nod to Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death” outfit as he also had to deal with a number of opponents that would seemingly have the upper hand on the fight. But, as with the Bruce Lee character, the outfit she wore defined her as an unbeatable assassin with very little regard for mercy.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star High "Black Leather" - I, Robot (2004)

Will Smith was the king of summer blockbusters in the 90’s. And when he decided to make more interesting choices with his roles, the audience were often pleasantly surprised with the results. 2004’s sci-fi thriller “I, Robot” has Will Smith’s “Detective Spooner” investigate androids that may or may not be making decisions on their own against their programmed protocols. But what set his character apart from the rest of his counterparts was his fondness for nostalgia. The film being set in 2035, Spooner paid extra interest in 90’s and 2000’s tech, art and fashion. He illustrated this character trait in a scene which has him opening a package of a pair of “vintage” Chuck Taylor All-Stars and admiring them as the way sneakerheads admires styles of the previous generation. Although this scene hit sneaker collectors in a personal way, it was just a clever cross promoting platform for Converse to advertise the exact shoes releasing later that year.

I, Robot (2004)

Whether the sneakers being featured on the big screen were your style or not, it is undoubtedly a special moment for sneakerheads to see representation of their passion in mainstream media. To have potentially millions of people sharing a sneaker moment, whether they fully understand it or not, was a breakthrough way for the once seldom covered subculture to get the attention it deserves. Although this list clearly does not represent the entire spectrum of sneakers in movies, these notable examples are a great gateway to discover and discuss two passions which are now more relevant than ever.

What “sneaker in movie” moment did we miss? Let us know in the comments.

 

Written by: Eugene Lau
Layout by: Matthew Chan

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