Few consumer cultures inspire the fervent enthusiasm and high-stakes acquisitions of the sneaker community. In her short film "Hypebeasts," Filipina-American filmmaker Jess dela Merced depicts a racially-charged incident where that fandom bubbles over. Starting today (December 5), the film is available online as part of its "Film School Shorts" series.
The ensemble short, which stars dela Merced alongside Grizz Chapman ("30 Rock") and Jake Choi ("Broad City"), focuses on three Asian-American sneakerheads as they plan to buy a new high-end shoe. They start out at a restaurant, where a fed-up Black employee writes "The Ching Chongs" on their receipt. That employee later joins his girlfriend and friends in line at the fictional Hypebeasts store, where dela Merced’s character recognizes him and prompts her brother to start a fight in reaction to the slur. The rising tension is intercut with scenes of increasingly agitated sneakerheads in the same line and the store staff’s derisive treatment of those customers. The tension boils over as the fight erupts into a brawl, looting and eventual violent repression by police. The film’s core characters gain haunting clarity in the aftermath, but where other films might pass judgment on them, "Hypebeasts" recognizes the explosive prejudices as part of larger societal pressures.
"I wanted to tell a story about how minorities are pitted against each other, distracted by a consumerist desire for material objects," dela Merced said in a Colorlines interview. "Everybody plays a part in [the riot] because they don’t know any better, they’ve been forced to think these ways by White [society]. There’s a hovering White supremacist character that’s not actually in the film but exists, and the characters are not aware of it."
She added that she took inspiration from both the first "sneaker riot"—she actually filmed the project at the site of the incident in New York City—and a 2013 incident where a Chick-fil-A cashier printed "CHING" and "CHONG" on two Asian-American customers’ receipts.
"Hypebeasts" pays clear homage to Spike Lee‘s "Do the Right Thing," which dela Merced said was intentional. Lee advised her on the film for an independent study while she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree at New York University, and she employed motifs familiar to Lee’s film—particularly the riot—in homage. "Hypebeasts" has won several awards since its initial screening, including the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s "Best Narrative Short" and Fusion Film Festival’s audience award.
Check out the film above, and keep an eye out for dela Merced’s feature-length film debut "Chickenshit," which begins filming next year.