Not many people like to dive deep into the economics of sports but they can really say a lot about America. Players, especially minorities, are loathed by intensely loyal fans when they shun the team that drafted them in order to find their appropriate value on the open market in free agency. The very fans who will damn a player for being greedy will pay no attention to the team’s ownership. Generations of inherited wealth sit in luxury boxes, looking down from above as they profit off the sweat of athletes. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney take on the inequities of professional sports in the excellent new drama for Netflix, High Flying Bird. This unique examination of the other side of sports stands as a great sports movie even if it’s not about the game as much as “the game on top of the game.”
In High Flying Bird, the NBA is the midst of a lockout. The owners of the league refuse to budge on the players’ union demands for a bigger slice of the pie. This has been going on for six months. Agent to NBA players Ray Burke (André Holland) is starting to feel the pressure of the work stoppage which seems to have no end in sight. The players’ union refuses to budge and the owners won’t blink. As his agency’s NBA division isn’t taking in income, his company credit cards are being declined and his assistant Sam (Zazie Beets) has been reassigned to another agent. At the same time, one of his star young players Erick (Melvin Gregg) has made a risky financial decision in a panic as uncertainty looms over his young mind. The world of pro basketball is in for a rude awakening as the status quo doesn’t have much longer to live.
It’s a bit risky to simply categorize High Flying Bird as purely a sports film. Basketball is at the heart of the story. A trio of young NBA stars – Karl-Anthony Townes, Donovan Mitchell, and Reggie Jackson – tell stories of their early days in the league in documentary interviews that work in unison with the fictionalized story. But there’s not much actual basketball in the movie. It completely liberates High Flying Bird from any clichés, as the outcome of this film doesn’t come down to win or lose – or at least not simply victory or defeat on the court.
Without much happening on the court, the game of High Flying Bird is a game of wits and André Holland’s Ray Burke is one of the greats. Not only does he have to deal with duplicitous owners like the scheming aristocrat played by Kyle MacLachlan. There are other complications that he Ray must contend with in the egos of his clients, the aspirations of his assistant Sam, the careful negotiations underway with the head of the players’ union Myra (Sonja Sohn), and the kind of parents who carefully groom their children’s public personas (played with perfection by Jeryl Prescott). Ray Burke has to juggle all of these considerations at the skill level of a Harlem Globetrotter, and film brilliantly lets the audience get wrapped up in every little complication but leaving us to wonder just how long of a game is Ray really playing.
The cynicism of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script focuses strongly on the racial and economic aspects of professional sports. The dialogue crackles with wit as characters ponder just who really owns the sport of basketball and, by extension, who really controls their own fate in the world of professional sports. Soderbergh amplifies the McCraney’s script through his sleek, efficient direction. The director’s own frustrations with the modern movie industry mirrors the disillusionment of the characters in the film, allowing High Flying Bird to work equally as a metaphor for behind the scenes battles over money and creative control.
This marks the second consecutive film that Steven Soderbergh has shot with an iPhone following last year’s Unsane. Soderbergh has embraced digital filmmaking technology early on, and the advances of iPhone cameras along with his own masterful instincts for visual storytelling ensures that this isn’t a gimmick as much as a means to create intelligent films without concern of financial constraints. The iPhone photography of High Flying Bird is much clearer visually than Unsane. However, there are still hiccups that appear in the image, illustrating that the technology is progressing but nowhere near perfected. Soderbergh is such an incredible talent in blocking and framing shots that he can make the imperfect images seem as if they’re by design. It’s obvious throughout that Soderbergh isn’t shooting on iPhones as some kind example of his greatness but more because it’s the most practical way for him to tell the stories he wants to tell without playing by the rules of Hollywood studios.
High Flying Bird is the work of two masters. Soderbergh masterfully utilizes his toolset as a director to bring Tarell Alvin McCraney’s brilliant script to life. They’ve crafted a film that is timely and full of insightful social commentary, but they never forget that the film must also entertain as the movie is often funnier than you’d ever expect. I’m still not sold on the idea of movies being shot on an iPhone. I’ll always prefer the aesthetic of shooting on celluloid. However, if Steven Soderbergh continues to crank out captivating, intelligent films on the level of High Flying Bird, he can shoot on whatever makes brilliant movies like this happen.
High Flying Bird
A brilliant examination of the modern landscape of the business side of professional sports, Steven Soderbergh directs a brilliant script by Tarell Alvin McCraney in High Flying Bird, which blends smarts and humor within blistering social commentary about race, class, and privilege.