High Flying Bird is a basketball movie that’s not actually about basketball. I swear; the actual game takes up less than 10 minutes in the film’s 90 minute run time.
This is good news for people like me, who would rather get a cavity filled than watch human beings run around after a ball in real time, and also makes for a more compelling — if unwieldy — story. Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix drama takes place during a fictional NBA lockout that’s reached a stalemate. It’s an exploration of power, an indictment of “the game on top of the game” that has wrested control from the predominantly Black players and placed it into the hands of a small minority of white billionaire owners.
Those tensions are apparent in the very first scene, in which agent Ray Burke (André Holland) chastises his client, number one draft pick (please bear with me as I try to use sports terms in the following sentences) Erik Scott (Melvin Gregg) for taking out a loan he can’t afford to sustain a lifestyle he hasn’t earned yet. The irony hits seconds later, when Burke’s corporate card is held hostage by his own mediocre white man boss (Zachary Quinto), who is ready to fire him unless something happens with the lockout.
Their conversation provides a neat little bit of exposition, courtesy of Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for writing the play that inspired Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight. Basically, it all comes down to who needs who more: the players need the owners and the league to play and get paid; but without the players, the owners can’t sell the merch that keeps them stocked in private jets and those small exotic birds they eat on Succession. Ray spends much of the film vacillating between the desire to inspire his athletes to know their worth in the industry that has been built around their labor, and looking after his own financial interests. That duality is shared by his assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), who wants to help her boss succeed, but has her own plans and ambitions to further along.
McCraney’s dialogue is lyrical, but punctuated with enough acrimony, bitterness, and zingers to keep it from swaying into Friday Night Lights territory. This isn’t about the love of the game — it’s about who owns the game, and who has a right to stand where they do. A shot of Myra (Sonja Sohn), the lawyer for the players’ association, waiting for an elevator after a meeting with the big-wigs makes clear those delineation. She’s a Black woman standing on the outside, looking into a room of powerful white men holding expensive scotch — she can meet with them, but she’s not one of them. Her sparring matches with the owner’s rep (a smooth-talking, jet-setting Kyle MacLachlan) feel like what I imagine a good poker game is like, if I was ever able to learn the rules.
But where McCraney errs is in the structure of the narrative, which conceals what’s actually going on until the last minute, for a twist that doesn’t really pay off. Ray’s big plan to get everyone working again is so convoluted that I will not attempt to explain it here — just know that part of it involves an orchestrated Twitter feud, a viral video and a meeting with Netflix, which all feels authentically 2019. But despite its wackiness — or perhaps because of it — it’s a scheme that feels very rooted in reality, a vibe that’s underscored by the cinematography. The film joins the handful of projects (including Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Soderbergh’s last project, Unsane) that have been shot entirely on an iPhone, a technique that’s so far been hit or miss, but works here. Credited for cinematography and film editing under the aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, Soderbergh’s camera brings the backroom deals in swanky, high-rise bars to life in all their mood-lit, buttery leather seats glory, in stark contrast to the meetings in bland corporate offices, or even the sharp lighting of a community basketball court.
But the real draw here is the cast, who deliver their lines with acerbic prowess and deadpan humor, all while never letting us forget that there’s something very serious at the core of all this sports drama. The film has an amazing running gag about the insidious, facile urge to link basketball to slavery, which is played for laughs but is always grounded in Bill Duke’s incredible performance as a grouchy and demanding South Bronx basketball coach.
The film’s title — from a song by Billy Edd Wheeler — brings to mind almost superhuman abilities that have the potential lift ordinary beings to the skies above. But the reality is that all too often, they’re kept down in the mud.