High Flying Bird: Film Review

‘What if players took control of the fruits of their talent and emancipated themselves from the behind-the-scenes political and economic shenanigans of basketball?’ is the question “High Flying Bird” film aims to explore.

Andre Holland. Photo by: Peter Andrews

Andre Holland. Photo by: Peter Andrews

Written by one of the most exciting contemporary playwrights, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Oscar winner for “Moonlight” and his play “Choir Boy” is currently on Broadway), the script is equally insightful and idiomatic, filled with sport business jargon potentially discomforting to those unfamiliar with the matter. Nonetheless, the cast certainly do a great job of manifesting prose in conjunction with Soderbergh’s idiosyncratic camerawork and visuals, albeit at times looking out of place.

Man, I can see a whole infrastructure that put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those in the skybox”, explains Ray, a sports agent (played by Andre Holland), as Spence (Bill Duke), his confidant and former coach, digests his plan for upending the business of professional Basketball. At its core that is the premise of Steven Soderbergh’s new film released on Netflix and select theatres on February 8. The film revolves entirely around a fictious NBA lockout – a financial dispute between NBA team owners and players union where the former wants to decrease player salaries and lax regulation on trade whilst the latter wants guaranteed pay-outs regardless of performance, that prevents any games from being played – although, during the press junket Andre Holland said the film found its foundation during the 2011 lockout during which the Donald Sterling revelations provided it with a structure to go by. It follows Ray as he travels between states, counsel’s rookie: Erick (Melvin Gregg), overcome obstacles from his own firm, and attempts to renovate the structure of the NBA during this financial stand-off between owners and players that has brought the entire league to a standstill.

The film begins (25 weeks into the lockout) with a sublimely executed 7-minute dialogue in a shimmering bar atop The Standard in Manhattan overlooking the High Line. Fielded by chatter and enormous windows, Ray and Erick are seated facing each other. Soderbergh’s camera is at times personal and then inviting, mirroring and contrasting the conversation as Ray lecture’s Erick on his financial incompetence and oblivious nature. Holland portrays the character of Ray with refined nuances in his demeanour and speech controlling the scene with charisma as he goes onto provide an insight into the pillars of his plan as he explains the system of the NBA.

As it progresses it draws on similarities between the 400 years of Black suffrage in North America, in an attempt to critique the infrastructure of the NBA and its exploitive nature: commodification of (Black) bodies orchestrated by rich white old men (a reoccurring refrain is stated whenever the comparison is made: “I love the Lord and all his black people”. And it does so in a refined manner, with an underlying theme of rebellion; whilst drawing on past trauma it also poses the opportunity of hope.

In addition, to the eccentric filmmaking – substantial amount of the film is filmed on an iPhone 7 Plus – the film is a somewhat hybrid, consisting of small moments of straight-to-camera accounts from three NBA players, Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Reggie Jackson, as they describe their experiences as former rookies.

Now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80991400