By Darlene Donloe
When he was 16-years-old, not only did Justin Tipping get “the shit” beat out of him, he had his white on white on white Jordan’s jacked.
Fast forward and Tipping is the director and co-writer of Kicks, an inner city, coming-of-age, story about Brandon (Jahking Guillory) who, after saving for his first pair of Jordan’s, gets them jacked by a ruthless street gang lead by a brutal thug named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe).
In a dangerous move, Brandon, 15, accompanied by his two best friends, Rico and Albert (Christopher Meyer and Christopher Jordan Wallace respectively) attempts to reclaim his Kicks.
This is Tipping’s feature film debut. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In fact, just the opposite. The Oakland, CA native has already won a Student Academy Award (NANI) and the Lexus Short Film competition.
Kicks opens in theaters Sept. 9, 2016.
I recently caught up with Tipping at The London in West Hollywood, to discuss the film.
DD: This movie was inspired by a short story you wrote after a similar event took place. Tell me about it.
JT: Yes, I was 16 and I was actually in a part of town I wasn’t supposed to be in. I wanted to see a movie. I talk to friends now and they say, “Yeah, I got jumped there too.” There was a theater, and an arcade there. Other people I knew got jumped there, too. I was parked in the back and walking toward the theater when it happened. I saw about 10 kids approaching me. The first thing I heard was “Oh, he got the white on white on white.” I knew what was up and I had nowhere to go. I got a classic stomp out and beat down. It was everything you think would happen. You black out and you’re on the ground. It’s a weird experience.
DD: Wow! So this is what inspired you to write this story?
JT: What really inspired me was the fallout of that and the kid the next day saying, “You got fucked up” and laughing about it. They knew I got the shit kicked out of me. My older bother looked at me and said, ‘You’re ok, you’re a man now. I was proud and deeply saddened at the same time. In retrospect, it’s so sad. I don’t understand why masculinity is associated with violence. I wanted to explore why that is. There is this social construct that we as a society have built. We tell men it’s not ok to cry. We tell them violence is the answer. All of it contributes to this circle of violence. I was part of that too. As a kid I was trying to figure out how to be cool and stand up for yourself. That mixture now results in kids dying over shoes, Ipods, Ipads and jewelry. It’s sad. Society has told us what to say and feel. The kids in Kicks were born into that. This is how the world works. Be dominant or dominate.
DD: For you personally, what does it mean to be a man?
JT: You define yourself as a man in how you treat women. I want to be as authentic to the world as possible. The kid characters in Kicks have never been with a girl before, but they know to be cool they have to make people believe they have. Man up should be associated with man up and walk away. Man up and take the beating. Even if confronted with violence, react by not reacting. That’s it you have the power to end the cycle.
DD: When you were writing the script, did you see the character’s faces? What did you see?
JT: I actually knew a Flaco and an Uncle Marlon. Most of the characters in the film are inspired by my family and friends. I left a lot of the races open while writing and casting. If you were a hood you were a hood. Originally Rico was hood. While in the casting process, I needed to be authentic to a specific world. I opened it up to let all races read. You learn quickly that there is a lack of diversity in casting – period. I was in John Singleton’s office when I met these three kids. They were immediately best friends. You cast around that.
DD: The Bay area is like an additional character.
JT: Yeah, I fought for that for a long time. There were moments when I was told I could go to Detroit where there are bigger tax cuts. No one shoots in the East Bay. It was another character for me. Someone trying to find their voice and story. It was important for me to shoot there. I have family and friends there. The community was so supportive. It was a community drive experience. I think there is something really special about Richmond and Oakland. Berkeley raised me. They are all unique.
DD: How long was the process of producing this movie and what was the 'Tipping' point?
JT: I actually had this idea in 2009. I was about to go into AFI (American Film Institute) for my master’s degree in directing. I had no idea I was going to be doing this. I got in. It was like go in with two ideas to pitch. They were looking for short films. I came into AFI the night before and I wrote out the story of NANI. I pitched Kicks in the room. Because of the Academy Award, people took me seriously.
DD: What is the take away from this movie?
JT: I think the big take away for me is when the screen cuts to black and the audience leaves. It would be overwhelming. It needs to remind people that this happens everyday. It’s even more prevalent than in 1985. For some reason people dismiss it. Even the way reporters talk about it is condescending. The reporters are in $600 outfits talking about kids and their high-priced shoes. That’s not solving the problem. I want people to walk in the character’s shoes.
DD: You probably could have done any script with any number of characters.
JT: Yes, but this community was under represented. You don’t see them on screen. It was important to shed light on the cycle of violence. I don’t know if I was conscious of it at the time. I hope it illustrated that the cycle of poverty is connected with the cycle of violence. Lets talk about what it means to be a man. Does anyone deserve to die over that.
DD: What were some of the challenges in writing and directing this film?
JT: The biggest challenge was working with actual teenagers. From a production standpoint, you don’t have as much time on set. It’s challenging to schedule around that when you don’t have a lot of money. It was run and gun sometimes. Getting financing was a challenge. People were like – ‘Justin, you just wrote a Rated R coming-of-age story with all unknowns, no celebrities – and all people of color. The reality of the situation is what financiers are going to bet on that movie. I went into it knowing that. I’m very proud that we stuck with it and made it the way we wanted to make it. It didn’t get forced to cast Jaden Smith. It’s hard to find investors. It took time but I’m grateful and blessed.
Kicks, directed by Justin Tipping, original screenplay by Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden, stars Jahking Guillory, Christopher Meyer, CJ Wallace, Kofi Siriboe and Mahershala Ali.