In the new coming of age film "Kicks," all 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory) wants is a little bit of #respect put on his name.
A small-built and timid wallflower, Brandon is the butt of many jokes among his peers. Girls won't even look in his direction. His social status plummets further when his beat up white Air Forces 1 kicks reach the end of their course—to the point that he's forced to wear his mother's house slippers to school.
Breaking every piggy bank and rummaging every old birthday card, Brandon manages to scrape up enough money to buy a fly pair of Air Jordan "Bred Ones" — the quick answer to all of his problems.
In fact, things actually start to look up for him, but the social victory is cut short when neighborhood bully Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) and company come along. In an unflinchingly violent scene, the ruthless bullies unleash havoc on Brandon and in the process, they take his coveted Jordans right off his feet.
Shoeless, battered but unbroken Brandon enlists his two friends Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late Notorious B.I.G. and singer Faith Evans) and Rico (Christopher Meyer) to get his shoes back. As the formidable quest to retrieve the black and red Air Jordans ensues, a hood Odysseus is born right before our eyes.
Playing the shy character of Brandon was a bit of a challenge for lead character Guillory, who says he's more of an outgoing, confident person. However, one thing he has in common with Brandon is that he faced bullies in his past.
"They would say I look like a little girl and I was small but what I did — and what my character Brandon did — is we proved people wrong," Guillory said. "They didn't think Brandon would get his shoes back and do something. He did something. They didn't think I would be good at playing football. I showed them that I'd run you over!"
For first-time feature length director Justin Tipping, Brandon's story is also familiar for the wrong reasons.
"I was initially jumped for a pair of Nikes by like 10 kids," Tipping told NBCBLK. In addition to the "stomping out," Tipping said he experienced humiliation from his friends and fellow classmates.
However what his brother said to him about the fight inspired the larger arc of the film.
"My older brother coming up to me afterwards, seeing my face and being like 'it's all good, you're a man now,'" Tipping shared, "It made me proud but in a strange way sad. In retrospect, it made me question why masculinity is synonymous with violence."
From the gritty cinematography to the hip hop soundtrack as well as the use of space as a motif for innocence and loneliness, "Kicks" is the manifestation of Tipping's valiant attempt to make sense of that question. His goal: to provoke the audience to puncture their own ideas of masculinity that may be rooted in faulty societal myths.
This film is just the latest among other major pieces of art—from OWN's Queen Sugar to Frank Ocean's new album "Blonde"—that seek to move the social pendulum toward a more inclusive, multi-dimensional expressions of manhood.
Tipping says these conversations need to happen not only consistently, but early on with children as old as Flaco's son, "Lil' J" (Michael Smith Jr.), whose age is unspecified but is seemingly no older than 10.
"It all kind of starts with J in that age range," Tipping said. "That's when you're taught hate. That's when you're taught what gender roles are. That's when you're taught how to operate and function in society."
While Lil' J doesn't have many lines in the film, his role strategically places him at crucial scenes where teaching moments that Tipping described above take place.
In the final scene, Brandon and Flaco duke it out mano a mano. In a moment of desperation, Flaco asks Lil' J to hand him the gun. For Guillory, this moment in the film spoke volumes.
"Lil' J was the biggest man out of all of us because he didn't want to see his dad kill a little kid over some shoes," he said.
Guillory says he hopes viewers don't think the message is just about the shoes.
"When I read the script it just opened up my eyes because one of my friends got killed over his backpack," Guillory said. "People get killed over materialistic stuff all day. It's all about not valuing materialistic things more than friendship, more than love, more than people."
Wallace, who developed a close bond with his co-stars Guillory and Meyer on and off set, echoed a similar sentiment about the larger message of "Kicks."
"It's about friendship and knowing who your true friends are and knowing that you can't take your friends for granted," he said. "All you really have is your family and your friends."