The Pitch: Amidst a twenty-five-week lockout at the NBA, fast-talking sports agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is in a precarious position. His boss (Zachary Quinto) threatens to fire him if they can’t keep money flowing in, his star player Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) is swimming in debt from a predatory loan he took out just as the lockout began, and his assistant Allison (Zazie Beetz) has plans of her own. With no end in sight, and his friend and youth coach Spence’s (Bill Duke) recognition that the NBA’s commodification of black players is “a game on top of the game,” Ray hatches a scheme to seize the narrative for his young client and, just maybe, end the lockout. All it’ll take is the right combination of public Twitter beef, charity basketball events, and whispers in the ears of Kyle MacLachlan‘s NBA official and Sonja Sohn‘s calculating Player’s Association rep to make it happen.
Razzle Dazzle: It’s a shame we never got to see Steven Soderbergh‘s version of Moneyball (he was fired and replaced by director Bennett Miller), but High Flying Bird is a stunning realization of the effectiveness of his experimental filmmaking techniques. For a basketball film, High Flying Bird is deliberately devoid of the actual game — there are no dramatic fourth-quarter shots, no high-tension passes. One climactic game of one-on-one between Erick and his rival, prospective all-star Jamero Umber (the aptly-named Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) cuts away right as the action is set to begin.
For Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, the focus is on, as Spence says, the game on top of the game — the ways that agents, labor reps, and NBA executives gamble with the livelihoods of young black men. Like he intended to do with Moneyball, Soderbergh intersperses High Flying Bird’s drama with black-and-white interviews with young basketball players, describing their work ethic, the conditionally thankful relationships they have with their agents, and more. It’s a startlingly effective means of highlighting the opacity of NBA trading to audiences unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the business.
Forever the cinematic alchemist, Soderbergh continues his experimentation with iPhone-centric filmmaking that he started in last year’s underrated Unsane, the cool blues and threatening reds of the smartphone lens lending themselves to the suffocating coldness of the mechanics of pro-sports wheeling and dealing. Backgrounds dwarf and close in on the characters in equal measure, the fisheye lens of the iPhone warping the structures of power around Ray and his players. It’s alienating by design — the walls of avarice closing in on the marginalized people trapped in its encroachments.
He’s on Fire: Of course, all of Soderbergh’s mise-en-smartphone functions chiefly in service to the dual talents of Holland (who also executive produced) and McCraney, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonlight. It’s fascinating to see the latter’s particular brand of lyricism filtered through Soderbergh’s aesthetic distance, especially after seeing Barry Jenkins zoom in on the author’s intimacy. Then again, McRaney’s tale takes a broader look at the commodified subculture of professional basketball, Ray, Erick, and the rest a way to explore the poisonous back-and-forth between the young players hoping for fame and fortune, and the agents and owners happy to literally capitalize on black bodies.
The intersection of race and power is at the forefront of High Flying Bird‘s story, McCraney weaving between the various corporate and racial hierarchies that exist within the auspices of these NBA negotiations. There are the rich white men at the top, including MacLachlan’s reptilian NBA executive and Quinto’s business-bro agent, the men holding the keys to the coffers. Then, of course, the young, vulnerable men with stars in their eyes, like Erick and Jamero.
High Flying Bird soars between these two extremes to explore the complicated lives of the middle-brow agents and players’ association reps — most played by people of color — trying to get a seat at the table within a game that typically exploits their people for monetary gain, with little thought to their actual welfare or futures.
Boom-Shaka-Laka!: While Ray is the primary figure of interest (played with remarkable intensity and fast-talking conviction by Holland), fighting for Erick as a microcosm for all exploited black players, others in his orbit have different approaches. Jamero’s mother (Jeryl Prescott), for instance, is a deeply religious woman whose comfortable middle-class existence is a rebuke to the “hoop dreams” stories most (including Ray, as she notes) expect of black NBA freshmen. For her, pro-ball fame is Jamero’s destiny, one she’s carefully curated for him since youth.
It would be tempting for High Flying Bird to center its conflict on the rags vs. riches conflict between Erick and Jamero, and their conflicting reputations amongst the next generation of young black players that Spence coaches (including a small, but pivotal role from Stranger Things‘ Caleb McLaughlin). But instead, the largely-unseen beef between them is all part of Ray’s master plan, a scheme to free them all from the NBA’s orthodoxy.
The Verdict: With High Flying Bird, Soderbergh may well have crafted the most direct distillation of his own philosophy of filmmaking to date: idiosyncratic, confident, and endlessly disruptive. Just as Ray plots to circumvent the capitalist systems that pin him and the players he represents down, so too does Soderbergh try whatever he must to get away from studio-mandated filmmaking, whether through fully independent financing or smartphone-centric cinematography.
On top of it all, McCraney’s script offers a tightly structured platform on which to layer his own commentary on the commodification of blackness in professional sport, and how much it would mean for people of color to call the shots in the game they already run on the court.
Where’s It Playing?: High Flying Bird does a fast break onto Netflix screens on Friday, February 8th.