Powerhouse writer-actor-producer Lena Waithe weighs in on the influence of the AJ1 sneaker in the powerful documentary Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1. The doc focuses on the cultural phenomenon attached to the ever-popular shoe, and how that phenomenon transcends every walk of life. It gives the whole story from beginning to end, starting with Michael Jordan’s monumental career and the controversy surrounding the then-rookie’s decision to wear red and black shoes on the NBA court.

Bolstered by the cultural ramifications of a black man (Jordan) taking on the NBA back in the 1990s, the AJ1s took on a life of their own. Unbanned brings in cultural influencers and style aficionados to set the record straight about the shoes’ staying power in American culture. When the game-changing commercial came out for the shoe, telling viewers that “The NBA banned the shoe, but they can’t stop you from wearing them,” Jordans became an act of defiance against the establishment. In a time where popular defiant rappers like NWA and Rev Run dominated the hip-hop scene, those shoes became the ultimate symbol of resistance and style.

Of course, the AJ1s weren’t shoes that only men wanted to wear. Women on the hip-hop scene were also touched by the shoe’s influence, popping up on the feet of heavy hitters like Queen Latifah, Salt N Peppa, and nearly every other woman on the hip-hop and R&B scenes who people looked to for what was stylish. A style icon as well as an up and coming mega-content generator, Lena Waithe was a great voice to add to this conversation, shedding light on how the shoe progressed in its history and how it had a larger influence than just style. She says in the film, “I think people assume [the AJ1s] are a hood commodity. But the hood just made it popular. People look to the hood to see what to wear, and what to do and what say.”

The film continues to interview heavy hitters, Spike Lee, Anthony Anderson, young female music artists, and of course Michael Jordan himself, all discussing the impact that Jordan’s defiance to the system in the form of the AJ1s had on everyday life off the court. Waithe says, for African-Americans, the shoes had an even larger influence. “For black people in this country, we were constantly told that we were less than or we didn’t matter. And I think there’s a direct correlation between that little black boy wanting a coveted pair of sneakers. Because when he puts them on, for a second he forgets that the world doesn’t value his life.” Unbanned does an excellent job of covering the show’s significance to African Americans and the political climate of the time, while also acknowledging the counter cultures that embraced the AJ1s, like skateboarders and fashion bloggers.

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