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Film Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird (2019; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

A couple of months ago, I reviewed The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s half-baked “satire” of the shady dealings of the megarich, by wondering aloud whether Soderbergh was still a good enough filmmaker to be in possession of his reputation as a director whose work is always worth watching. It turns out that all I needed to do was browse Netflix’s interface of thumbnails to another film of Soderbergh’s released to the streaming platform this year for proof that he’s still got it.

High Flying Bird is a sharp-witted dissection of the big business infrastructure of American professional sports and how it manipulates and asserts power over the valuable, talented players that it relies upon, enriches, and exploits. It’s smart and fleet of foot, like a speedy, crossover-dribbling point guard (think Kyrie Irving, without the flaky half-serious flat earth theories). The focal point of this dissection is a savvy, high-powered New York-based pro basketball agent, Ray Burke (André Holland, who suggested the story to Soderbergh). Burke represents the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg of the sadly cancelled Netflix series American Vandal). Scott’s rights are owned by the unnamed New York NBA team that drafted him (implied to be the Knicks, of course, but while the league and individual players are named in the film, there are no doubt licensing issues around team trademarks), a team owned by David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), who is also spearheading an owners’ lockout of the league’s unionized players (represented by Ray’s ex-wife Myra, played by The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn) in order to force more favourable terms in collective bargaining negotiations. This is unfortunate for Scott, who cannot begin collecting his multi-million-dollar salary until the lockout ends, and more unfortunate for Ray Burke, whose roundball-centric agency is hurting for profit and tightening its belt. Ray Burke’s job and indeed the survival of the entire agency depends on the lockout ending and the cash flow returning, his boss David Starr (Zachary Quinto) tells him.

Ray, still haunted by the suicide of a highly-touted baller cousin for whom he acted as agent, puts a plan in place with the help of his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz, who has had a damned good year). Sam, who has learned well from the Machiavellian Burke, pursues a romantic entanglement with Scott and uses his social media to start a trash-talking beef with star player and his future teammate on the New York roster, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), while Ray takes the measure of Jamero’s formidable mother/agent (a flinty Jeryl Prescott) and floats a potentially lucrative opportunity outside of the league’s orbit. When the rivals both show up at an annual basketball-camp event run by a renowed old-school basketball coach (Bill Duke, with his long face and exquisitely weary eyes) and their disagreement escalates into a score-settling one-on-one game that is filmed on the cellphones of camp kids (one of which is played by Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin) and subsequently goes viral, the whole balance of the lockout – and perhaps of the pro game as it has been constituted – changes.

While The Laundromat weakened and obscured its message about the global elite’s devious lack of accountability with a screenplay full of tonal variance, misfiring comedy, and fourth-wall-breaking distraction (its screenplay was by Scott Z. Burns, who did better directing The Report), High Flying Bird (written by Moonlight co-scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney) crackles with verbal energy and clever sophistication of ideas. It’s also shot in a direct, intimate style by Soderbergh on an iPhone 8 specially fitted with an anamorphic lens; in a key single-shot conversation between Burke and Scott about the agent’s vision of a huge-earning future out from under the league’s umbrella, the camera circles the two actors seamlessly around a tight-packed NYC townhouse dining room table, the kind of motion that wouldn’t be possible with a full-sized movie camera. There’s an immediacy to the way the film looks and feels (Soderbergh himself acts as cinematographer and editor under aliases, as he has done before) that gives its thoughts about the business of pro sports a similar urgency and force.

Although Holland inspired the story, High Flying Bird climactically name-checks UC-Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards’ The Revolt of the Black Athlete and even has the author make a late cameo. One would be hard-pressed to argue that Scott and Umber’s fictional abortive rebellion against the NBA cartel that controls the monetization of their competitive atheltic output ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the social-justice agitations of Edwards’ Civil Rights era subjects like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommy Smith, and John Carlos. Indeed, High Flying Bird (the title is inspired by the 1960s country/folk-rock staple song of the same name, a version by Richie Havens scoring an early scene of Ray walking through the streets of Manhattan) is ambivalent about the hope of breaking down the inequitable contractual system of pro sports, let alone fulfilling radical leftist ambitions of challenging the underlying capitalist terms of transaction, the “game behind the game”.

Soderbergh intersplices documentary-style interview clips with NBA stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson, and Donovan Mitchell, who speak with guarded candidness about the struggles of breaking into the league as the fictional Erick Scott is doing and the lessons they gleaned from the experience. These testimonials don’t really touch directly on the monopoly-challenging scenario of the movie’s fictional narrative of the ideas behind it, but then public statements of contracted NBA players wouldn’t be expected to, would they? Not that this scenario is some sort of anti-capitalist revolutionary inversion either; it’s simply a scheme to score a bigger piece of the profit pie for the players whose abilities are being sold to the public, and one that is ultimately an elaborate bluff meant to rush lockout negotiations to a successful resolution, not a whole new system to be put into effect in its place.

A running joke in High Flying Bird emphasizes both Soderbergh and McCraney’s knowledge of the racial politics of economy and labour that underlie majority African-American professional sports leagues like the NBA (and the NFL, where Umber’s older brother plays) and its doubtful stance in regards to both more traditional community-based and more extreme radical-progressivist responses and remedies to the inequity of those systems in late capitalism. Duke’s elder statesman of the game Coach Spence has a rule in his gym that extends to outside-the-gym social interactions: any mention of slavery requires a rosary-like mea culpa recitation: “I love the Lord and all his black people”.

The New Yorker‘s Troy Patterson sees Spence and his imposing church-esque rule silencing comparisons of chattel slavery subjugation and its many bastard children in the American social economy to basketball as an old-guard, keep-your-head-down denial of the politics of justice. Ray talks to Spence about an independent black basketball league that he was involved in but which failed in competition with the early NBA; Spence means well and has intentions of uplift to his youth players in the South Bronx, but he doesn’t seem to think that true black autonomy in a sport they dominate is realistic. The best that they can hope for is a slice of the pie of white-centric corporate capitalism (a not-inconsiderable one, for highly-touted prospects like Scott and Umber), in exchange for the commodification of their bodies outside of their own control. Is it slavery? No, and it’s maybe not productive to imply that it is. But it also isn’t freedom, and falling somewhere in between may not be good enough. High Flying Bird is an enjoyable, slashing dribble-penetration into the packed zone defense of pro sports’ complex capitalist superstructure, but does it take the high-percentage layup or kick out for the dagger of a three-pointer? Honestly, a good, balanced measure of both.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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