High Flying Bird (2019)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh; André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
In the world of professional basketball, athletes do not own their bodies. They are commodities controlled by the NBA, an often tyrannical sports league that possesses the athlete’s very image, career, and future. A single injury can take an athlete out of the game; he can be traded on a whim to the other side of the country; his family can be uprooted due to a single game. And underneath this capitalist dystopia is an organisation built on racism, a fact that director Steven Soderbergh chooses as the subject of his latest film, High Flying Bird (2019), a fictional story that toes the line of documentary, protest film, and social critique, all under the guise of a straightforward, if cerebral, sports film. But it’s a fictional story that seems to be playing out in real time–one needs only look at the drama surrounding the trade of Anthony Davis right now to witness just how broken the sports world is.
In the midst of a six-month-long NBA lockout, a tenacious and quick-witted sports agent, Ray (André Holland), grows frustrated with the power dynamics within the world’s third-most-profitable sports league and their bartering tactics with the networks. Ray’s frustration seems self-protective: since the players aren’t getting paid, neither is he, a reality he discovers while trying to pay his tab at a high-priced café where he’s meeting Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), one of the athletes he represents. Erick, the year’s #1 draft pick, is the kind of athlete the NCAA college system failed. He’s an under-educated Louisiana State graduate; when we first meet him, he’s trying to explain to Ray how he was scammed by a loan shark. We, like Ray, can sense that Erick is getting bored by the lockout, itching to get back onto the court and prove he’s the best. Erick is considering looking for other options, but Ray passes him a sealed package containing a bible. “Not The Bible, a bible,” he says, adding that Erick will know when to open it, and it takes the rest of the film for him to find the right moment. Adding to Ray’s financial stress is his relationship with Spence (Bill Duke), an aging coach at the South Bronx Community Gymnasium, whose love for the game barely outweighs his hatred of the NBA’s racism. Spence, a mentor figure for Ray, organises a community event for which Ray is supposed to recruit NBA stars to attend and inspire young players, but with the lockout, Ray’s having a tough time finding anyone.
The tone and pacing of High Flying Bird recall an earlier Soderbergh film, his (cinematically underrated) heist masterpiece, Ocean’s Eleven (2001). As with George Clooney’s character, Danny Ocean, our introduction to Ray is in his lowest moment, but it soon becomes clear that he has some kind of plan. The pace of the film increases, cutting from shots of Ray strutting through the streets of downtown Manhattan with Richie Havens singing “High Flyin’ Bird” in the background to meetings in bright, windowed skyscrapers. Ray meets with Erick’s rival, another rookie basketballer, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) and his agent/mother, Emera (Jeryl Prescott). Ray seems to have misread the situation, and Emera snidely remarks that he must not be doing so well with Erick if he’s trying to recruit his rival. But as Ray walks away, there’s a sort of Danny Ocean-like smirk on his face. Other meetings, with his former assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), and Myra (Sonja Sohn), the Players’ Association representative, end in a similar way. After minutes of snappy dialogue, Ray seems to leave with nothing but that smirk. All the others can do is just watch: Ray is up to something, and while nobody can figure out what that is yet, everyone can feel it.
Ray’s plan falls into motion when Erick and Umber start a Twitter feud. Erick says he could destroy Umber in a one-on-one match, and it escalates until their Tweets make the nightly news. Eventually, the feud is taken to the court of the South Bronx Community Gym, in front of the youth from the annual fundraising event. Here, we see basketball–if only for a brief moment–in its pure form: two guys, snatching the ball out of each other’s hands. There are no refs, no jerseys, no six-billion-dollar-a-year industry. And then it hits the characters, and us. Ray hasn’t just been challenging the league, he’s been creating a rebellion from within. Hours later, private matches between individual stars are selling tickets for $1,400 on StubHub, filling arenas in Las Vegas and Miami. Shaky videos are uploaded to Snapchat and YouTube. It’s basketball without the NBA. The owners freak out; Ray smirks. I’ll leave the ending of the film a surprise, but it’s safe to say that you’ll walk away with a new idea of how basketball can–and maybe should–be played.
Strictly speaking, High Flying Bird is not a sports movie. Sure, it’s a film about rookie players struggling during an NBA lockout. Sure, every character is obsessed with basketball. Sure, there are interviews with Karl Anthony-Towns, Reggie Jackson, and Donovan Mitchell, three NBA stars. And sure, the entirety of the film takes place in relation to the court. But at its core, Soderbergh’s film is no more about basketball than Fight Club (1999) is about a violent underground fighting society. Aside from a couple seconds of a one-on-one game and a few shots of dribbling in a gymnasium, we don’t actually watch any basketball. This is, no doubt, partially due to the NBA’s copyright laws, but it also reflects the film’s real subject. Soderbergh’s film is about the “game on top of the game,” as Spence describes it, that is, it’s a film about racial tensions between the white NBA owners and the black players.
Slavery as a metaphor for the NBA’s treatment of black athletes. High Flying Bird tiptoes around this comparison, never quite letting it be stated explicitly, but there are moments when the metaphor breaks through. Spence promises to banish from the court anyone who refers to the “institution of slavery” unless they repeat his personal mantra: “I love the Lord and all his black people.” High Flying Bird is extremely careful to never quite compare the white owners of NBA teams to slave owners, but their coded language reveals how similar these are; the white owners trade and buy black players, and they take their money (50% of the revenue gained). Ray and Spence also metonymically slide between these concepts, almost with a self-aware playfulness. At one point, Ray asks Spence, who has been yelling at his players to run faster, if he’s still “cracking the whip,” and Spence just looks at Ray until he repeats the necessary phrase. The effect is powerful. We can see Spence’s hatred of the oppressive structure of the NBA, an organisation in which rich white aristocrats control, possess, and commodify the bodies and lives of young, black men. Spence’s personal rebellion is in influencing those around him to think about the game without the league, reminding them that the NBA only “integrated” in the 1950s when the Harlem Globetrotters started making more money than the white players.
Only two white actors take up more than a few seconds of screen time in High Flying Bird, and neither of them come off favorably. The first is Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto), whose laissez-faire attitude toward the lockout and the players it affects shows how little respect there is for the livelihoods of NBA players. The second is David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), the kind of seedy NBA billionaire owner who jets off to Australia for a long weekend while refusing to negotiate a 0.5% salary increase for his players. He is unequivocally shown as the visible bad-guy of the film, but the real villain is, in my opinion, the commercialisation and commodification of athletes’ bodies.
Soderbergh’s film is also a commentary on the age of social media. The NBA has power over what players can post on Instagram, and licensing agreements with networks restrict who can watch and on which platforms. What Ray realises is that social media can be used as a tool against the oppressors. The NBA holds a monopoly on the world’s best players, but in an age when streaming and iPhones are ubiquitous, mediacy is no longer to be tolerated. In a twist, Soderbergh embraces this technology himself. High Flying Bird is the director’s second film shot entirely on an iPhone, after last year’s horror film Unsane (2018). Similarly, the film was exclusively released on Netflix–only after the film had been created. There’s a parallel statement about turning away from the established (the NBA; Hollywood) and embracing the thoroughly modern, and possibly radical (social media; Netflix/iPhone). Here, Soderbergh goes just a bit too far: in his brief reimagining of the world of professional basketball, he gestures toward a world where the NBA doesn’t exist, where basketball is controlled by the players. This is surely a nice idea, one justified by the film’s depiction of inequality. But the film, through the voice of Ray, suggests that when the networks won’t budge, the place to turn to is streaming services like Hulu, or, as the film mentions multiple times, Netflix. I would love to be able to read this as a warning to the networks and the NBA owners–treat your players fairly, or beware!–but these moments are blatantly self-promoting rather than revelatory, and it’s the heavy-handedness here that made me feel I could only give the film three and a half stars.