Cast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Anyone expecting a nuts and bolts sports movie with underdog motifs and come-from-behind victory laps will be largely baffled by Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird; a film which digs into “the game on top of the game.” Of course, this comes as little surprise given the director’s track record for setting up familiar story beats and then pivoting away to explore other ideas. Along with screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), Soderbergh has taken themes of technology, wealth, and sports negotiations and placed them within the context of white capitalist power structures. In that sense, High Flying Bird is more about endemic racism than characters dealing with an NBA lockout.
The film centers on agent Ray Burke (André Holland), who is vouching for young NBA draft pick hopeful Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) amidst a stalemate between team owners and the Players Association. The former is represented by Kyle MacLachlan’s invisible mustache-twirling villain and the latter by Myra (Sonja Sohn), who seems to have the players best interests at heart. There’s also Ray’s assistant (Zazie Beetz) running her own game against the system, as well as a smug exec played by Zachary Quinto, who’s constantly reminding everyone how their jobs are in jeopardy due to the lockout. With a very sharp script by McCraney, whose heightened dialogue is reminiscent of the works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, High Flying Bird initially positions itself as a modern take on fighting against the powers that be, but that would ultimately be too easy a position (however understandable) for the film to take. Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney go one step further; showing how Ray’s attempts at breaking the rules in order to start a revolution would have consequences that not everyone, including people of color, would be on board with.
One such dissenter comes in the form of Bill Duke’s Bronx gym coach, who has been around the block several times over and has more of a long game view of the situation than Ray. At one point, he even asks the question “why set it up, if it isn’t going to last forever?” which underlines the dichotomy of reforming a system built upon wealthy whites profiting from a largely African-American sport. On the other hand, the film is also smart about showing how the allure of fame, money, and popularity can trap young black athletes into following the rules set up by this institution. This struggle, personified by Gregg’s green NBA prospect, is bracketed by interview scenes with real-life players talking about the personal and professional challenges that come from signing to the league.
This being a Soderbergh joint, there’s also another layer which permeates the ways in which the characters interact with their environment. Specifically, the film was shot entirely on an iPhone (like last year’s psycho-drama Unsane), and this filmmaking freedom acts as a counterpoint to how media can signal change by putting the power back into the hands of black athletes. To wit, there’s even a one-on-one game between Erick and another NBA hopeful that’s captured entirely on a phone, uploaded to the Internet, and spread across social media like a wildfire. The idea of players taking to the streets or gyms in order to gain traction against corrupt patriarchal greed is telling, and Soderbergh’s aesthetic choices—sharp angles, floating dolly shots, rigid camera pans—mirror a world where information comes in trending bursts.
Eventually, Ray’s scheme to upend the system by giving players more creative and financial power makes High Flying Bird a subversive sports movie which entertains through crisp filmmaking, snappy dialogue, and fine-tuned performances, but also nails the disturbing nature of an economic system based on racial injustice. There’s even a Chekhov's’s manilla folder containing a “Bible” given to Erick by Ray in the film’s opening moments; and its eventual reveal, set to the sounds of Richie Havens, is the kind of punctuation more rousing than any game-winning buzzer beater.