“Viola, I love you. Your outfit is eating.”
That was but one of many laudatory comments the cast and crew of Air received following its premiere at the SXSW Film & TV Festival in Austin, Texas, and it prompted the film’s director and co-star, Ben Affleck, to crack, “I never get that comment… but well-deserved, and I see why!” (For the record, Davis looked flawless in an all-white suit.)
A late entry — and the closing-night film — to the fest, the Amazon Studios feature explores the creation of the first Air Jordan sneaker, and how executives at Nike, including marketing gurus Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), VP Howard White (Chris Tucker), as well as its eccentric CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directed), convinced rookie basketball phenom Michael Jordan and his parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon), to sign with a company that was getting its ass handed to them by Adidas and Converse in the basketball-sneaker department.
The film is an old-fashioned underdog tale and crowd-pleaser (though in this case the “underdogs” are a group of white corporate executives at a multinational corporation specializing in athletic footwear and apparel), and not only received a number of loud cheers during its packed screening at the Paramount Theatre, including nearly every time Viola Davis popped up on screen, but also was on the receiving end of perhaps the longest standing ovation at the fest.
Once the applause died down, Affleck and his cast answered some questions about the origin story of arguably the greatest sneaker ever produced, inspired by arguably the greatest professional athlete in history.
“It’s the inception of the whole idea of sneaker culture,” explained Affleck. “The first time there was ever even a notion that a shoe would represent someone’s identity and have meaning, and then it would be a work of art.”
Affleck said that he showed Phil Knight the movie, and, given how his portrayal of Knight is as a kooky fella who enjoys wearing Nike tracksuits around the office, putting his bare feet up on the desk, and dispensing Buddhism-lite philosophical musings, he felt “hallway through I realized [it] might have been a giant mistake and I thought about leaving.” But Affleck said he won Knight over by relating his portrayal of him to the way the star’s been treated online.
“I said to him, ‘I have been there a little bit myself. I have been known to appear in the occasional meme,” cracked Affleck, to a roar of laughter. “People — they like to make fun of the boss. That’s part of workplace culture.’ And he was so classy about it.”
The Oscar-winning Davis — the only actress who the real-life Michael Jordan wanted to play her — said that there was a strong connection between her embodiment of Jordan’s mother Deloris and her own mother, who was from the same generation of Black women in the American South (Davis grew up in South Carolina while Michael and his family are from North Carolina).
“My mom was born in 1943. Deloris was born in 1940. She was born in a generation of people whose dreams were their kids,” said Davis. “It’s the height of Jim Crow. It’s the height of Black people being told that their dreams didn’t matter. So, for her to have that big vision for her son, and to believe it so full-heartedly, is so miraculous. So, it was an honor to play Deloris.”
That vision, by the way, was for Jordan to receive equity in his Air Jordan sneakers (and any future Air Jordan sneakers), which the film’s end credits say nets Jordan about $400 million a year, while the Air Jordan brand brings in $4 billion a year for Nike. Affleck and Damon followed suit, making the film with their new production company Artists Equity, which grants actors and crew members greater profit participation in its projects.
“It was the greatest job I’ve ever had. I’ve never had more fun,” offered Damon. “Ben and I, from the moment we read [Alex Convery’s] script to the last cut we made at the edit, it was absolute joy. This has been the best experience of my life. By the way, you go to work with Viola Davis in the morning on a five-page scene, and at 10:30 you’re done, it’s the best thing you’ve done in your career, and you’re an hour out of lunch, so you’re like, ‘Well, I guess we should keep working!’”
Most of the post-screening Q&A was spent singing the praises of Air’s cast — which also included a deliciously over-the-top Chris Messina as David Falk, Jordan’s agent; Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, an assistant coach for the 1984 USA Basketball Team who become a mentor to young Michael; and Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, the late Nike creative director who helped design the Air Jordan I sneaker and Jumpman logo. And indeed, there is not a weak performance in the film among them.
“I love this movie,” exclaimed Affleck, a smile beaming across his face, adding, “it’s like coaching the Dream Team, and how hard was that?!”
Air will be released in theaters on April 5. It is the first Amazon Studios production to not drop simultaneously on their Prime Video streaming platform.