High Flying Bird

Steven Soderbergh’s NBA film effortlessly soars

Christopher Nolan may want Steven Soderbergh to “come back from the dark side” of digital filmmaking, but if his friend can turn out films like this on a iPhone 7 Plus, then Mr Nolan might as well go back to restoring Kubrick prints and preaching to the choir. In recent years script duties on Soderbergh’s films have tended to be outsourced, and his collaboration with Moonlight story writer Tarell Alvin McCraney injects an energy and urgency not felt in his work for quite a while.

High Flying Bird gives us a look behind the scenes of the NBA, scrutinising the power dynamics of a sport predominantly played by young black men, yet owned and run by a small group of old, rich white guys who are less than willing to give up their fat cut of the cake. McCraney’s fast paced script provides plenty of food for thought about how young black athletes could potentially take back power in an age where digital platforms (hence use of the iPhone) open up exciting new possibilities.

Soderbergh’s use of a camera phone was clearly also an aesthetic choice as much as it was a thematic one. The world of agent Ray (Andre Holland) is confined inside a fishbowl away from the confines of a reality we can relate to. Filled with low-angle shots and close-ups it’s a hard-edged business world (referred to in the film as a game on top of a game) where those in control of the numbers are constantly looking to outmanoeuvre each other. And it’s in the middle of an extended lockout (where games are suspended due to a pay despite between the team owners and players) that fast-thinking Ray is given pause for thought about the current state of black ownership within the game today.

When we meet him he’s trying to stop top draft pick and new client Erick (Melvin Gregg) from making ill-informed financial choices. Erick is like countless others new to the professional game: eager to play, but poorly prepared for life in the big leagues. Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto) is only concerned about the financial well drying up during the lockout, while his mentor, Spence (Bill Duke), an ex-player turned youth coach, reminds him how the current set-up came into existence: the all-black NBL merged with the all-white BAA to form the NBA, losing control of the best talent and their agency in the process.

Exasperated Players Association rep Myra (Sonja Sohn) is getting nowhere fast in negotiations with her counterpart Kyle MacLachlan, who is representing the team owners. It seems there is no end in sight to the lockout until Ray devises a plan to put the frighteners on the boardroom suits. As far as he’s concerned there is more than money and careers at stake, with the very soul of the game under threat. Using fake social media beef as the jump off point, he attempts to put the ball back into play and firmly into hands of the players.

In order to hear a great script sing you need a cast in tune to its rhythm, and Soderbergh has always known how to pick his performers. McCraney’s theatrical sensibilities find the perfect home in the mouth of Holland, whose razor sharp timing is matched by his charismatic on-screen presence. As always, Beetz displays an effortless confidence, while the weary wisdom of Duke and the crafty guile of MacLachlan fit like a glove with their character profiles.

While High Flying Bird perhaps isn’t a message film per se, McCraney’s script reflects on the current state of the game, reminding us of other institutions powered by outdated systems that are structured to favour a small minority. To give life to the reality of a rookie entering the NBA, Soderbergh intermittently cuts back to black and white talking head interviews with current pros Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell. As they explain, most players aren’t going to be a Kobe or a LeBron, and they’ve got to make a short career work long term before they’re either dropped, injured or consumed by ego.

This is a film rich with ideas and discussion points, including black entrepreneurship, and the tangled racial history of a country intertwined with a sport that is supposed to offer people of colour a sense of ‘freedom’. In case you still don’t get it, Soderbergh ends the film with a literal reference to a book titled The Revolt of the Black Athlete, whose author Dr. Harry Edwards also makes a very brief appearance. In the wrong hands it could come off as contrived and awkward, but instead it’s an empowering ending to a film (bolstered by a fantastic Richie Havens song) you hope leaves a mark on some of the bright-eyed young professionals in the game itself.

High Flying Bird can be seen on Netflix from Friday 8th February.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Feb 06, 2019

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