Who Is Stan Smith?

Who Is Stan Smith?

2024, NR, 94 min. Directed by Danny Lee.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 3, 2024

“Some people think I'm a shoe.”

That’s the enigmatic personalization inscribed in black marker on a white sneaker, as signed by Stan Smith.

Who, you may ask, is Stan Smith? That's suitably answered by Who is Stan Smith?, the intriguing new documentary from filmmaker Danny Lee.

Lee is clearly obsessed with footwear, since this is his fourth documentary on the subject. Having looked at two brands (Nike in The Story of Air Max: 90 to 2090 and Adidas in The Story of Dunk), and one store (in the ESPN 30 for 30 episode, “Friedman’s Shoes”). Now he focuses on one man, the gangly, straightlaced, and unlikely tennis superstar Stan Smith after whom the distinctive low-profile Adidas leather sneaker was named. He was far from the first athlete to endorse athletic footwear (after all, they don't call them the Chuck Taylor All-Star for nothing). Nor can he claim to have the first shoe endorsement in tennis, that honor going to Hans Nüßlein and the 1949 Model Nüßlein. It wasn't even Smith’s first endorsement since he signed a clothing deal with Duofold in 1970. But Lee lays out how Smith and his agent, Donald Dell (a lovable pastiche of the cigar-smoking, whiskey-swilling hard ass), with the assistance of Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, helped change the sneaker game and the business of endorsement.

Yet this isn’t all about the shoe, as Lee subtly weaves in how this quiet power-hitter from Pasadena became a civil rights activist. It's a commitment to equality that the director doesn't tie directly to the WASP-y Smith's time on the U.S. Davis Cup team with boundary-smasher Arthur Ashe, but to Smith’s own, inherent moral core. At the same time, his role in sneaker history is undeniable – as Lee argues, the Stan Smith was the first crossover sneaker, namechecked and worn by rappers like Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams to this day. As former SportsCenter anchor Cari Champion put it, making his brand as big as the manufacturers’ is the ultimate gangster flex by Smith: “Jordan doesn’t have his face on a sneaker.”

If anything, Lee's fascinating review of a life makes the argument for him to revisit one chapter, that historic 1968 season. It's not that it's glossed over here, but it's such a fascinating time, within politics, culture, and tennis, that it could easily support a more in-depth treatment. That Martin Luther King is assassinated and Arthur Ashe wins the first ever U.S. Open in the same year is a powerful indictment of America both then and now. But there’s an elegance to how Lee approaches the material here, summed up by one photo of the team, all in shades and sweaters, looking cool and smart. In the back is Smith, looming and looking awkward, voted least likely to get into fights with racists on Ashe’s behalf, or become a campaigner against Apartheid, or to be a worker’s rights activist who helped orchestrate a players’ walkout. His personality – defined by an endearing mix of humility, ambition, and a straightforward opposition to injustice – shines through. At the same time, Lee catches his quiet and ongoing devastation at the loss of Ashe, a friend more than a peer. For the many people who don’t know there’s a man behind the shoe, Who Is Stan Smith? reveals his understated humanity.

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Who Is Stan Smith?, Danny Lee

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