'High Flying Bird' is a swift disrupter from Soderbergh
The opening sequence of “High Flying Bird” has the speed of “The Social Network” and the swank of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But the opportunities in this world are very different. Speaking in quick, deliberate blips that gradually increase in volume, Ray Burke (Andre Holland), an agent who has mastered a cocktail of exasperated control, explains to his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) why it was foolish for him to take a short-term, high-interest loan from an exploitative hustler. Erick says he needed the money; after all, the NBA is in a lockout, and the highly regarded rookie has not even gotten to play in the league he says he was made for. “The league is a business,” Ray reminds him, noting that while players can be hard to see in football and baseball has history, only basketball inspires rap lyrics and drives merchandise sales. “Think these rich white dudes are going to let the sexiest sport fall by the wayside?”
Indeed, writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (whose play became 2016’s Best Picture-winning “Moonlight”) and director Steven Soderbergh have done nothing less than approach a subject previously tackled by Spike Lee (“He Got Game”) and filter it through an even more thought-provoking racial perspective. “High Flying Bird” is a whirlwind of adult conversation and financial frustration, all very much existing amid the racial politics of a nation in which Donald Trump is the president and a professional sports organization in which most of the players are black and nearly none of the owners are. Consequently, Ray, who is black, knows there is an art to flicking the strings without pulling them. “I’m just outside,” he tells Spence (Bill Duke), a basketball vet who runs the long-standing Backcourt Day charity event at the South Bronx Community Gym. “But I’m about to pull up a chair.” The film hinges on Ray’s efforts to disrupt a league whose owners (like the manipulative David Seton, played by Kyle MacLachlan) and maybe even Myra (Sonja Sohn), the players’ association rep, have agendas of their own to keep the games on hiatus and both the players and the agents unpaid. This is anything but simple, particularly considering Ray’s awareness of his own possible obsolescence. His boss (Zachary Quinto) seems to neither respect nor understand Ray’s techniques, and parents like Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mom of Erick’s rival/teammate, believe they can represent their children’s interests better than an agent ever could.
It is a ballet of power plays and negotiations that could turn overly talky, and at times it does. “He can see the business. He’s a few steps ahead,” Myra tells Sam (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s former assistant who is making her own moves to transition from an agency to the players’ association. That sort of blunt dialogue needs a few coats of subtlety, and the film sometimes has an unusual tension between its dialogue-heavy, mid-tempo narrative and the high level at which these intellectual games are being played. Throughout, Soderbergh, himself an established disrupter and master at both swagger and coldness (from “Out of Sight” to “The Girlfriend Experience” to “Side Effects”), keeps the camera in motion while again shooting on an iPhone. This at times creates the feeling of a ball spinning (like when he quickly tilts up and away from the opening sequence and then spins down to the street level). Mostly he exists on the same moving plane of walk-and-talks and appropriately pulls back from certain discussions, such as an elevator interaction between David and Myra in which the audience is not meant to feel included. Everyone in “High Flying Bird” strategizes, and a lesser filmmaker might have allowed chattiness to become the overwhelming characteristic rather than the riveting battle between people taking action and the thick, power-drawn lines they dare to cross.
Periodically, actual young stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell provide insights in black-and-white interview footage. They acknowledge the importance of players surrounding themselves with the right people, not letting ego take the place of effort and competition and the role of social media in today’s NBA. These are not earth-shattering revelations, but they provide helpful reminders of the people that are actually swept up in this business so as not to allow any of these games to seem just like games. Real people’s careers are at stake, and sometimes more. Ray and Spence discuss how a player gets hurt and messes up his life while a (white) owner says “negro” and his life is … “annoying.” “They invented a game on top of a game,” Spence asserts. McCraney repeatedly identifies in no uncertain terms the us vs. them nature of the league, but he is also careful not to group everyone together. Spence insists that anyone who invokes slavery, especially when used in reference to basketball and players as a commodity, declare, “I love the lord and all his black people.” “I have a rule on my court,” he explains to Myra. “This is my office,” she replies. “I’m here; my court,” says Spence. Answers Myra, in place of Spence’s requested mantra: “I’d love for y’all to get the fuck out of my office.”
Only an NBA insider could determine if Ray’s angle – teasing the concept of basketball as pay-per-view content only to push owners toward settling their dispute with the players – would really unfold that way, with such incredible distance between the penthouse boardrooms and the ground-floor press conferences, between astronomical contracts for TV rights and new hypothetical possibilities for streaming content. Everything feels credible in Holland’s remarkably expressive yet never over-reaching face, containing experience and fear and command in shifting balance at all times. Also fantastic in “Moonlight,” he is perfectly cast as Ray, who gives Erick a package containing not the Bible but a bible, and assures the young man that he will know when is the right time to read it.
How extraordinary that in a league of men, run by men, this movie, filled with strong, powerful women, concludes with that right time being Sam reading the book inside Ray’s package (entitled “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”) and insisting that Erick, now agentless after firing Ray, needs to read this. It suits the entertaining, progressive “High Flying Bird,” a reflective, angry wake-up call of its own.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.