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Michael Jordan plays a pivotal role in the movie Air — and is even present in a few climactic boardroom pitch scenes — yet his face is not shown in the film aside from shots of magazine covers and snippets of archival footage of the real-life player.
It’s a bold choice as the Amazon Studios film — which has just opened in theaters — is all about Nike executives’ wooing of the NBA megastar and its creation of the Air Jordan shoe line. During a few key scenes where Jordan is present in a room, the production uses an actor who is typically shown from behind, or the camera will focus on his hands.
Before the film’s world premiere at the South by Southwest Film & Television Festival last month, Ben Affleck preemptively told the audience they would not see Jordan in the film and explained why.
“How do you tell a story about Michael Jordan and never see him?” he asked of the movie, which is billed as being inspired by true events. “When you are that person, when you become so much more than a hero or an athlete or even an icon, you start to become an idea to people. You touch them and just start to represent hope and excellence and greatness. You are one of a kind. And there is no way I was ever going to ask an audience to believe that anybody other than Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan. Which was also out of my own naked self interest, frankly, because I knew it would destroy the movie. You will see him [in archival clips] in the movie, but you will see Michael Jordan as he truly is in his authentic masterful genius which exists for all of us to see. It was a deliberate choice. I thought he was too majestic to have anyone impersonate him and – as I told him – ‘You’re too old to play the part.'”
In The Hollywood Reporter‘s recent cover story on Affleck, the actor-director added, “Jordan is too big. He exists above and around the story, but if you ever concretize him, if you ever say, ‘Yes, that’s Michael Jordan,’ we know it’s not, really. It’s fake. I thought if the audience brought everything they thought and remembered about him and what he meant to them to the movie and projected it onto the movie, it worked better.”
And in a press statement, Affleck further explained, “Michael Jordan is so famous that I truly felt if we ever saw an actor playing it would be hard to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, because, in my opinion, there’s no convincing anybody that someone who isn’t Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. We felt a more interesting way to tell the story would be for him to exist in the ether of the movie. To be talked about by everyone but not seen is somewhat analogous to the experience of celebrities and sports stars in modern life, because most people go their whole lives without ever meeting or seeing their favorite sports star or celebrity in person. So we only see Michael in clips and flashes. We don’t ever fully see him in person because to see him in person would be to put his feet on the ground in a way that the movie doesn’t want to do.”
Affleck also discussed with THR what it was like broaching the idea of the film with Jordan. “I have to be very clear, this is not the authorized Michael Jordan story,” he said. “He was not compensated in a way that would be appropriate if this were that. If you’re going to do a Michael Jordan story, they should back the fucking truck up. This was me saying, ‘Mike, I’m not going to make the movie if you’re not cool with something about it. I just won’t do it. I want to know what’s important to you.’ He was very clear. He was the one who told me about [Nike executive] Howard White, who wasn’t in the original script, who’s played by Chris Tucker. And I said, ‘Any anecdotes about your dad?’ And without going into any more detail, he actually talked about his mom, who wasn’t really in the script. That’s when I understood what the movie was. Talking to him about his mom was incredibly moving, and I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t about Nike.'”
It was from that conversation, Affleck has said, that he expanded the role of Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis in the film) to become the focus of the Nike executives’ courtship efforts. “Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie for me was that, going into it, the protagonist isn’t who you think it is,” Affleck said in a statement. “In the course of developing the film, I came to the realization that the fulcrum of the movie is Viola Davis’ character, Deloris Jordan. I wanted to do justice to her, as well as Michael, and honor who they are and the lasting impact they have on our culture.”
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