Most people, I think, will always connect filmmaker Steven Soderbergh with the Ocean’s 11 remake and ensuing franchise, and I get it. Those movies were slick and fun and George Clooney and Brad Pitt were so handsome and the heists were well-planned and the movie had a sense of humor about itself, and it let you inside that feeling, and wasn’t it amusing when Julia Roberts played an character who was then pretending to be Julia Roberts? Ah, the laughs we had!
But Soderbergh, for me, is the creator of Erin Brockovich and Traffic. 2000 was the year I really got into movies, and it was because of those two films, and the concise, focused way they analyzed the flaws in great structural institutions. Soderbergh (who was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for both movies, and won for Traffic) has this streak of rebellious activism that he nurtured in those films, this idea that sometimes one person can’t bring down the whole system but they sure as hell should try anyway, and that’s the mentality that he brings to High Flying Bird.
Now playing on Netflix, this partnership between Soderbergh, screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (of Moonlight), and actor André Holland (also of Moonlight and Soderbergh’s series The Knick), who suggested the story, is a movie full of sharp edges, of characters navigating singularly through labyrinthine mazes of power and wealth, of people trying to—and I say with this no sarcasm whatsoever—make a difference.
High Flying Bird is a film that benefits through multiple viewings (I’ve watched it three times since it premiered on Friday, and noticed something new every time), whose character motivations click together more and more upon further consideration, and whose final messaging is not unlike one of my favorites from last year, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. You can try to enact change in the world, and you can try to make things better, and you can try to build coalitions, and you can try to foster understanding, and sometimes you just have to smash it all down. If the men in charge won’t hear you, you have to remind them. Wealth isn’t the only form of power. There’s labor, too.
Set during an NBA lockout, the film follows agent Ray Burke (Holland) over a 72-hour period. The team owners and the players’ association, represented by Myra (Sonja Sohn, of The Wire, such a welcome presence back in my life), haven’t reached an agreement after 6 months. Players are running out of money and agents aren’t getting paid, but Burke is determined to provide for his clients—even though he can’t quite figure out why rookie player Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg, of the hilarious second season of American Vandal), took a short-term, high-interest loan from some shady guy already. Where did Erick’s money go?
But that’s only one issue in this whole mess, only one concern Ray has among many. His firm, SAV Management, is cutting lines of credit and reassigns his assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) to another agent; Ray’s boss David Starr (Zachary Quinto, effectively smarmy) doesn’t see why Ray is giving players money out of his own commission to tide them over. Who cares about them? They’re supposed to be sources of income for the agents, not the other way around.
Ray sees something bigger, though: an opportunity to use this lockout to the players’ advantage, to build something outside of the hierarchical nature of top-down management, where the owners say something and the players have to listen, where everything about them is commodified and depersonalized and controlled. Their Twitter accounts are monitored. Their public behavior is discussed by talking heads starving for content to fill their 24-hour news cycles. And the players themselves—the rookies who don’t understand 37% income tax, who don’t grasp the mechanics of the lockout, who just want to get out there and play on the court—are chewed up and spit out.
Soderbergh and McCraney communicate all of this to us—all these varying lines of power and these different character relationships—through an incredibly dialogue-heavy film that flows forward, that immediately draws you into the action, that never once outstays its 90-minute run time. 90 minutes! They get all this done in 90 MINUTES! The push-pull bond between Ray, who is working on his own agenda, and Sam, who sees social media as a weapon the players can use. The quietly observational style of Erick, who turns to Ray for help and who pushes back against any stereotypes his own agent may have about him (“Yo, stop low-key stupiding me” is a great line). The no-nonsense attitude displayed by Myra, who knows that Ray is up to something but who cares enough about him and respects him enough to turn somewhat of a blind eye to whatever he may be planning. (The scene when she tries to describe an owner to him as Lord Voldemort, and then replaces the comparison with Walder Frey from Game of Thrones so that Ray can understand the pop culture reference, is a well-done reminder of a shared bond between these two people).
And then there’s Coach Spencer (Bill Duke), who has known Ray for years and who tries to teach in the children he coaches an understanding of what the sport of basketball was before the NBA came to be and how black players made this game for themselves. Any person who makes a slavery reference on Spencer’s South Bronx court has to apologize by proclaiming their love for “the Lord and all his black people,” and it’s because Spencer knows what the owners have made the sport, knows how easy it is to compare these white owners of teams to white owners of black bodies, and wants to push against it. One man making a change in his little sphere of influence, hoping it will ripple outward.
When Spencer tells Ray “They invented a game … on top of a game,” it’s one of those instantly memorable pieces of dialogue that tells you everything you need to know about the worldview of the art you’re consuming. It’s Lester Freamon in The Wire saying “all the pieces matter”; it’s Petyr Littlefinger in Game of Thrones saying “chaos is a ladder”; it’s Erin Brockovich telling lawyers defending corporate polluters that their water was “brought in especially for you folks”; it’s Veronica Rawlings in Widows telling her female co-conspirators that they have the chance for success in their planned heist because no one “thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
And so in Spencer’s analysis of how professional sports is a system of extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a tyrannical set of owners, High Flying Bird demonstrates its belief system and its activist leanings. “There’s a high flyin’ bird, flying way up in the sky/I wonder if she looks down, as she flies on by,” sings black folk musician Richie Havens in the song this film is named after. There’s a thin line between heaven and here, and High Flying Bird is about finding it and trespassing over it, about building something equitable out of something oppressive. It’s a new classic.
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