There’s a moment in the first few minutes of the new movie Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 that paints a truly bleak picture of what the National Basketball Association was like a generation ago.
Today, of course, the NBA is the second-most valuable sports organization in America—one in which every team franchise is worth over $1 billion, one that’s defying professional sports’ overall ratings slump (18 million viewers tuned in for Game 3 of NBA Finals earlier this month) and one with a highly diverse viewership (45 percent are African American).
But in 1984, the NBA had money problems, ratings problems and, forgotten by most of us now, a racial problem—one that Unbanned’s guests discuss with unvarnished frankness. Among the frankest is Russ Granik, the league’s former deputy commissioner.
“The NBA was in a fairly precarious position,” Granik recalls in the film. “The national television audience at the time was a largely white audience, and there was a lot of speculation that we’d never be able to have a league that had such a high percentage of African-American players and sell that to the public. We were struggling with some really unfair stereotypes.”
As its title suggests, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 is a film about Nike’s Air Jordan sneaker and, by extension, about its influence on the NBA and the culture at large. The film’s writer and director is Dexton Deboree, co-founder of creative agency Los York, whose client list just so happens to include Nike. The logical assumption, then, is that Unbanned is a feature-length piece of sponsored content, a “film” that’s really just a long, praise-filled commercial.
Except that it isn’t.
“The brand had nothing to do with the film,” Deboree’s publicist stressed in an email. (By “nothing,” he means nothing proprietary; Nike did introduce Deboree to some notable personalities who appear.) The first clue that it isn’t sponsored content is the candid talk about race. And while both the Air Jordan sneaker and Nike corporate come off looking pretty good in these 90 minutes, the story is of the sort that could only be told well without a brand’s marketing department holding the clapperboard.
Significantly, that makes Unbanned, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is slated for theatrical release this fall, more than just a new feature film. It’s also a potential model for the future of branded content—an independent product that a brand cooperates with but doesn’t supervise or underwrite. In the process, the film avoids the compromises that invariably come into play with sponsored content, whose basic mission is to banish the negative or controversial aspects of a story in favor of showing the obligatory rosy picture.
To partner or not to partner
Not that the Air Jordan story isn’t plenty rosy in this film. In an admiring, at times adulatory tone, the movie recounts how Jordan’s shoe deal with Nike revolutionized the endorsement model by giving an athlete his own branded line. (In this case, a striking red-and-black shoe that ran afoul of the NBA’s uniform code and resulted in a fine—one that Nike happily paid). The film also revisits how Jordan himself did much to revolutionize the NBA, drawing a new generation of fans to the game that diversified its audience and eventually revived its fortunes.
In light of Los York’s standing relationship with Nike, then, it would have made plenty of sense for the filmmaker to approach the brand as a partner and underwriter, a move that Deboree admits he considered making. “We had a lot of discussions about that,” he said.
And with good reason. Nike’s obviously not lacking for funds—its revenues were north of $34 billion last year—and Los York had already worked on creative for the mammoth sportswear brand, including 2016’s “Built for More,” a campaign created to launch Carmelo Anthony’s 12th edition of signature sneaker in the Air Jordan collection.
But ultimately, the marketer-director elected to strike out on his own. “My perspective on it—and [Nike] agreed, [was that] the only way for me to tell an unbiased story was to have some distance and go away and do it,” Deboree said. “If they’re paying for it or being my partner in creating it, then it becomes their version of the story. Not to say that’s wrong, but if you were talking about yourself it’s almost hard to be honest and critical that it is for someone else to step in and tell the story.”
It’s doubtful, for example, that Nike brass would have wanted to say much about the proliferation of incidents that arose when Air Jordans became so popular that kids who couldn’t afford them actually killed other kids to get their Air Jordans. Best known among these was the 1989 case of Michael Eugene Thomas, a Maryland teenager whose barefoot body was found in the woods near his high school after being murdered for his shoes by a friend with whom he played basketball. Thomas’ slaying led off an article in the May 14, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated, whose cover, which featured the headline “Your Sneakers or Your Life,” figures prominently in the film.
“Kids are literally snatching the shoes off of other kids’ feet,” ESPN host Sal Masekela says in the film. “It literally was like I might fucking have to end someone’s life so I can get those, for what that status—what that power—is going to give me. That’s how crazy it got.”
And while Unbanned praises Nike’s visionary marketing, it also makes clear that that marketing ended up having a very negative—if obviously unintended—effect on the very minority communities it was addressing with the shoes. As producer and Public Enemy founder Chuck D says in the movie, once Air Jordans—priced at a hefty $65 in 1985—“hit a critical state of consumption [in] disenfranchised neighborhoods, and the price/market was sky-high, it created issues for young people who wanted [a pair] but couldn’t afford it.”
Not only would it have been unlikely to hear people speaking that way in a piece of sponsored content, it’s equally unlikely that a marketing production could have booked so many important figures from the arts and culture—not only Masekela and Chuck D, but also comedian Jerrod Carmichael, DJ Khaled, television writer Kenya Barris, actor Anthony Anderson and Spike Lee.
“There were a lot of people who were particular” about their conditions for going in front of a camera,” Deboree said. “They’ll [appear] if it’s not a brand thing, if it’s not a marketing piece. We were clear [that] we own this thing. It’s not a marketing thing.”
The future of content?
Of course, given Deboree’s standing relationship with Nike, it’s hard not to see Unbanned as at least a little bit of a marketing thing. The movie was announced by Los York Entertainment, a new division within Deboree’s agency that, according to the press release, has “taken best of film development and production and blended it with what works in marketing and advertising to establish one unique process.”
Mario Natarelli, managing partner for brand agency MBLM, pointed out that Unbanned’s unique process still looks a lot like a piece of marketing. “It felt very commercial,” he said. “It felt like Nike was clearly driving [it].” Even so, Natarelli believes Deboree is on to something.
“More and more marketers need to figure out how to show their brands in a noncommercial way,” he said. “They need to tell stories in ways that feel authentic.”
As time goes on, that imperative is only likely to increase. Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple Consulting, pointed out that “in a world of too much content, consumers are hardwired to screen out sponsor-created content.”
They’re unlikely to screen out Deboree’s effort, however. Because Unbanned is an indie film, it’s already garnered more than its share of mainstream media attention, including a review in The New Yorker.
“There is a role for this kind of content more and more,” Natarelli added.