Take a good look at the four category tags for Netflix’s High Flying Bird: “basketball,” “New York,” “cerebral,” and “fight the system.” In its final scene, this Steven Soderbergh film ends on that revolutionary note.
At the end of the film, aspiring sports agent Sam (Zazie Beetz) thumbs through the book that agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) had left for rookie basketball player Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). "You have to read this," she says, eyes alight. Ray had given Erick this book in an envelope to open at the right time. Now, at the conclusion of a 25-week lockdown, is the "right time" for Erick to process the messages found in this provocative 1969 book by sociologist Harry Edwards, called The Revolt of the Black Athlete.
Like the movie High Flying Bird, Edwards' book points to the system of inequality behind professional sports. "Edwards peels off the covers and exposes the myth of fair-play and esprit de corps in sports as a giant trap for Black athletes who have been charmed from without and strangled from within," writes journalist Samuel J. Skinner in the book's forward. And, just like High Flying Bird, the book also proposes an alternative. According to Tambay Obensen of IndieWire, The Revolt of the Black Athlete is a "treatise on how the collective voices and concerted actions of black athletes could evoke institutional change."
In the book, Edwards recalls his time as the organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which encouraged Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The Olympic Project for Human Rights had five demands, including restoring Muhammad Ali's title, which had been stripped because he refused to fight in Vietnam; disinviting the apartheid states of South Africa and Rhodesia; and hiring more Black coaches.
The International Olympic Committee eventually did ban Rhodesia and South Africa from competing, deflating the boycott. Still, some athletes were determined to use the Olympics' platform to make a statement for civil rights for Black and disempowered people around the world, resulting in one of the most enduring moments in Olympics history. After the men's 200 meter race, OPHR members and medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black power salute. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman stood with them in solidarity. Hours later, Smith and Carlos were expelled from Olympic village and dismissed from the games. They faced media uproar and a lack of support at home. After decades of death threats and criticism, Smith and Carlos were finally recognized for their bold revolutionary act by the Obama administration in 2016.
Essentially, Edwards' beliefs form the spine of High Flying Bird. When writing the script, Holland and Soderbergh consulted heavily with Edwards, who currently serves as an advisor to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Soderbergh intended for High Flying Bird to spur conversation about the current set-up of all professional sports leagues. As Soderbergh explained to ESPN, "I've always been interested in a project that deals with the question of why the players don't have more of a direct ownership stake in any of the major sports leagues, particularly basketball, because that is utterly dominated by Black athletes. I always wonder when the contracts come up why a group of the players doesn't get together and go, 'We should own all this sh*t.'"
Clearly, this Steven Soderbergh film does not follow the well-trodden path of a conventional sports movie. Instead, it’s a movie about the sports system. The movie highlights how Black sports players are used to make money for already rich (and predominantly white) team owners. By giving him Edwards' book, Ray wants Erick to reconsider how he interacts with system. What would a league driven with players in control look like?
Briefly, High Flying Bird envisions just that. The movie is set over the tense 72-hour period during which Ray pulls every string to end a 25-week-long NBA lockout (though the organization is never named). The film’s premise was drawn from a 2011 NBA lockout that lasted about 21 weeks. But Ray and all of his complicated maneuverings were dreamt up by screenwriter Tarrell Alvin McCraney, who previously wrote Moonlight.
The script is dense, full of twists typical of a Soderbergh movie. By the movie's end, though, Ray has successfully engineered an agreement between the wealthy owners and the Players Association. The players are happy: They had wanted a better agreement than splitting profits 50/50 with the owners, since there are more players than ever before. Ray's agency is happy: It's no longer struggling financially. And Ray? He might be getting a promotion.
Ray pulls this off by teasing the possibility of an alternative sports system, which would shut out owners entirely. Ray organizes an impromptu game between Erick and his rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), during a charity game in the South Bronx. The game, captured only on social media snippets, causes an fury of enthusiasm. After the match goes viral, other grassroots games with professional basketball players sprout up in stadiums in Las Vegas and Miami, with tickets selling for absurd prices. Team owners like David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan) recognize the threat Ray's new system bears on the status quo, and agree to fairer terms.
To Ray, the system should change. The league should be a place where someone like his cousin, a former star player, can play ball — instead of being shut out of his career because he's gay. It should be a place where athletes face opportunity, not potential entrapment.