Air erases Michael Jordan from his own narrative

In a dehumanising creative decision, Ben Affleck excludes the iconic basketball player from his Air Jordan origin story. It’s not a good look.


Yasmin Omar


When the trailer for Ben Affleck’s docudrama about the creation of Nike’s famed Air Jordan sneakers was released during the Super Bowl, there was only one question on everyone’s lips: who was playing Michael Jordan? The reason for the teaser’s coyness becomes obvious when you watch the film – you never see his face in the movie. Affleck (pulling triple duty as director, producer and star) takes pains to keep Jordan on the fringes of this story, which, in a win for capitalism and corporate strategy, mythologises Nike’s 1984 marketing coup to sign the future GOAT to an endorsement deal.

In terms of racial optics, Air’s sidelining of a once-in-a-generation Black talent to focus on a white talent-spotter (Matt Damon’s executive Sonny Vaccaro) scans pretty poorly – even if the movie did secure the basketball star’s blessing. Affleck has been repeatedly asked to justify this dehumanising creative decision on the press trail for the film. “Jordan is too big,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought if the audience brought everything […] he meant to them […] and projected it onto the movie, it worked better.” Unfortunately Affleck dropped the ball on this one.

Air Jordans were so groundbreaking because they were the first trainers that were moulded to the personality of the athlete. The film often says as much, and ensures that Nike’s lead designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) specifically asks who the shoes are for before setting to work on a prototype. If Jordan’s character is indeed indispensable to the success of this venture, why does Air refuse to give us any sense of it? He only has a few words of dialogue in the near two-hour runtime, with his thoughts and desires mostly mediated through strangers.

The marketing execs, who don’t meet him until Air’s final act, spend a lot of time pontificating on Jordan’s state of mind and preferred sports brands, while his mother Deloris (Viola Davis) is saddled with an inordinate amount of reported speech – “his concern is”, “he doesn’t wanna be here”, “he’s promised me” – that robs Jordan of agency. We’re forced to play detective to work out what the soon-to-be NBA champion is really like, picking up on clues such as his personalised ‘MAGIC MIKE’ licence plate, which hints at a confident swagger we never see.

Michael Jordan – the man himself, not the actor portraying him – features in one scene of archive footage in Air. Vaccaro is deciding how to apportion his budget for the Nike basketball department, and studies a 10-second moment in a 1982 college game Jordan played for the University of North Carolina team. He rewinds and rewatches the clip over and over, the camera pushing in on Jordan smoothly dunking a basketball into the hoop.

How this sequence is shot, with a close-up framing Damon on the verge of tears, makes it clear where Air’s allegiance lies. The film is disinterested in furnishing Jordan with any interiority. Instead, in a Green Book kind of way, it uses Black excellence as a means of developing a white character. It is Vaccaro’s reaction, not Jordan’s action, that becomes significant.

When the movie’s version of Jordan (Damian Delano Young) does finally appear, he is filmed in much the same way Harvey Weinstein was in Maria Schrader’s She Said: deliberately negated. It’s logical that Schrader diminishes a convicted sexual predator. It’s an affront that Affleck does the same with a beloved Black icon. The back of Jordan’s head is visible as he slopes down corridors in Nike’s Beaverton HQ, a shadowy figure in an ill-fitting suit, just far enough away from the main ensemble that they can talk about him as if he’s not there. He comes across as standoffish, rude even, in his reluctance to engage with those around him.

Upon arriving at the appointed boardroom, Jordan is invited to sit at the head of the table, giving him a pride of place that he doesn’t receive in the film. We see his hands as he traces the Nike Swoosh on the prototype shoe Vaccaro presents him, and tests their weight in his palm. It is unnatural how he is at once the focal point of the scene and a gaping absence within it, no more so than when Vaccaro launches into a lengthy speech about Jordan’s significance to Nike, and the world at large.

The music swells and the camera slowly zooms in on the exec’s impassioned face until the back of Jordan’s head is out of shot, the speaker more important than the spoken to. Air catalogues Vaccaro’s reaction to Jordan on the court, therefore it’s pointed that Jordan’s reaction to Sonny’s offer – which did feature in screenwriter Alex Convery’s original draft of the script – is excluded. To add insult to injury, the film links the monologue to Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (yes, you read that right). A sales pitch should never be equated with a plea for racial equality.

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling the Air Jordan story from the perspective of the businessmen who spearheaded the deal. Air isn’t, nor does it ever claim to be, a Michael Jordan biopic. It fits into a lineage of sports movies – Jerry Maguire, for instance – that prioritise what happens in back rooms rather than out on the court or field. Affleck’s film shares surface similarities with Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, another docudrama about a sports-industry pioneer, and yet crucially diverges in its presentation of the athletes.

Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the protagonist of Moneyball, but the baseball team he assembles are key secondary characters, such as the so-called “defective player” Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). He is initially shown with his fist to his temple, looking dejected when Billy recruits him. During their meeting, Hatteberg is clearly nervous, tripping over his words and avoiding eye contact.

Over the course of locker-room interviews and training sessions, clubhouse chats and playoff matches, he gradually transforms from a stammering wreck to a capable first baseman with renewed self-belief. Hatteberg’s eventual home run is notable as it completes his character arc: we feel his fist-pumping elation since the film has demonstrated how much this second chance means to him.

Moneyball succeeds where Air fails by letting us get to know the players – not just Hatteberg, but David Justice and Jeremy Giambi. Miller encourages us to emotionally invest in the athletes, which, in turn, makes us emotionally invest in the film. Its underdog story rests squarely with people, not a company worth $182 billion.

Air ends, like so many stories based on true events, with a clichéd montage of portraits of the film’s real-life figures placed next to the actors who played them. Of course, it doesn’t do this for Michael Jordan. Affleck chooses to run an intertitle revealing that “he is considered by many to be the greatest competitive athlete in history”. In doing so, the film breaks the first rule of storytelling: it tells, it doesn’t show – and Air ultimately starves Michael Jordan of oxygen.

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Published 6 Apr 2023

Tags: Air Ben Affleck Michael Jordan NBA

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