It’s tempting to label High Flying Bird a Steven Soderbergh movie. It’s not just because he’s one of the last auteurs working in Hollywood, his swindle of retirement in 2013 having barely had time to properly register before he sprung back into action with 2017’s Logan Lucky. Nor is it because this is basically a heist movie, with a similarly spirited, “gotcha!” climax like, say, Ocean’s Eleven. It’s because this new Netflix offering is kind of a novelty specifically for a directorial reason: like last year’s excellent Unsane, it is shot entirely on an iPhone, a format that brings with it some unique, striking aesthetics. It washes out bright light; it makes a movement, both of the actors and of the camera itself, feel more fluid; and it comes with a wide-angle lens that feels intrusive and present.
It’s as though we’re being made privy to something our characters would rather we not see, because, in the midst of an NBA lockout (think a union strike but in reverse), secrecy and hustle is all part of the game, both on and off the basketball court. Our star player? André Holland’s Ray, a young-ish sports agent whose employers are hemorrhaging money and whose client, Erick (a fantastically understated Melvin Gregg), is going stir-crazy while he festers in lockout limbo. No money; no contract; no wiggle-room when it’s one man against the system. So Ray decides to play the system against itself.
And who wouldn’t want to when it’s a system that commodifies its players, most of whom are black, into models for sneakers and faces for brands? No matter how good they play on the court, their skill is co-opted by the men in suits, and the organizations for whom they work. If that sounds a little like slavery, welcome to capitalism, and be wary that screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney has a lot more on his mind than just basketball. In fact, we never see any games being played at all, the suggestion perhaps being that, if the powers that be don’t actually care about what happens on the court as long as the right money changes hands, why should we care either?
So, is this a Steven Soderbergh movie? Technically, yes. Not only did he direct, but he also shot it and edited the damn thing (his rough cut was finished three hours after filming wrapped), perhaps operating under the “want something is done right, do it yourself” doctrine. Yet, one can’t help but feel that his biggest achievement is to look at the material given to him by McCraney and to have the wisdom to step back and just elevate what’s already there. Make no mistake: he is a sublime hired hand, giving all that heavy material agility that makes it revel in smallness, as Soderbergh has enjoyed doing so much lately.
But where Unsane (also Soderbergh working from someone else’s script) would likely have been a middling creepy cheapy without Soderbergh’s bravura direction, High Flying Bird ultimately belongs to McCraney. His script is angry and righteous, being sure to distinguish between the persons onscreen and the contemptuous entities they represent. But it’s also gleeful at its own staginess (made more convincing by Soderbergh’s iPhone) and chicanery, as Ray hops around NYC to keep the wheels in his plan greased.
He has a little help from his former assistant, Sam (the excellent Zazie Beetz) and even unwittingly brings old-timer Spence (a top-form Bill Duke) into his racket. Spence’s character is key to a particular arc McCraney builds with his writing: it’s the awareness of a system that’s rigged so that no matter who wins, the young black men on the court lose. Whether or not you have that awareness decides where you stand in McCraney’s world.
Erick kind of knows, but is more interested in getting back on the court and paying rent than fighting an unjust structure. Ray definitely knows, but as a sports agent, his awareness is complicated by his complicity in this structure (more on that later). McCraney even throws in some testimonials from real draft players, who can express only investment and perseverance in a game that’s against them. Only Spence, who has been a basketball coach for decades, keeps his focus on the game, perhaps a little naively. That is until Ray’s master plan—to put control of the game back into the players’ hands—begins to take effect.
It’s easy, then, to struggle a little with Ray’s arc. Just as one begins to see McCraney interrogating his role as a black man advancing the interests of white men who want to exploit black men, Ray pulls off another trick that makes him even more superficially likable, which can sometimes feel a little cowardly. But, by the time we reach the climax, the question, “Is Ray challenged enough?” becomes the wrong one. The real question is, “Has he done his part to change the system?” Avoiding spoilers once again, the final shot answers a resounding “yes”.
High Flying Bird is an ingeniously constructed ruse on McCraney’s part, and though there’s no use in spoiling it entirely, it’s a marvel to see a modern film able to competently engage with both the technology of social media and the protest-politics of black athletes. It’s electrifyingly current, though careful not to shout about it. Like Ray, it’s a smooth-talker.
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