I love the Lord and all his Black people.
A film like Steven Soderbergh‘s High Flying Bird is exactly what the Netflix model makes possible. You could even say the whole thing is a metaphor for the streaming service’s desire for a seat at the cinematic table. They’re a disruptor proving that what they offer is more valuable to the industry than the industry is to them. The theaters need content to stay in business, but the content makers no longer need theaters to screen to the public. The dynamic is obviously more nuanced than that with both sides relying on each other for sustainability, but you cannot deny the appeal to shake up a status quo in order for the creators to get a bigger slice of the pie and the gatekeepers to remember their place.
To really get a sense of that push and pull on a more human level (no matter how viral Netflix’s social media presence gets, they are still a for-profit corporation), playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney looks to the tenuous relationship between business and unions. Both sides have their ideas of personal worth (one providing an entity with jobs that pay while the other supplies the workforce keeping said entity alive) and both sides have their motivations towards such. Is one of them wrong with the other proving right? No. They are two halves of one ecosystem that keep each other in check to ensure no one is exploited along a road towards economic prosperity. Workers need the brand to succeed and businesses need employees happy to acquire mutual success.
What better way to drive this point home than sports? They’re billion-dollar commodities that help keep communities afloat. The difference between sports and say restaurant franchises or industrial complexes, however, is that the workers providing the service being sold aren’t interchangeable. You can’t buy a classified ad to hire a new nose tackle or point guard because only a select few athletes fit the bill. Shouldn’t they then be in charge? Shouldn’t the owners be grateful to have the best players available in order to win a championship and ensure ticket sales remain steady? Unfortunately, because of the way contracts are drawn up, teams quite literally own their athletes. That most owners are white and most players Black isn’t a coincidence. And McCraney feeds off this unavoidable truth.
His film is thus set during an NBA lockout wherein the next crop of rookie superstars has signed contracts that can’t go into effect. So number one draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) put pen to paper to get paid and hasn’t seen a dime despite being held to the standards that paper demands. The team and league put the fear of God into him and he accepts because he doesn’t want to compromise what’s coming weeks, months, or (hopefully not) years from now. He’s forced to keep his abilities on lockdown because getting paid now in the short-term outside of their rules could mean his team severing ties once the long-term gets back on track. Contracts guarantee owners an upper hand to wait for players to cave.
That’s where agent Ray Burke (André Holland) enters. He’s a man who knows only too well about the delicate push and pull between identity and image—how the means towards prosperity often necessitate a change in personality that risks destroying everything the game was to you in the first place. With a mentor of the game (Bill Duke‘s Spence) constantly reminding him that the NBA was created to profit off Black men under the guise of providing opportunity, Ray will never forget how far-removed the business is from the love of playing/watching. It’s this knowledge that lets him prey upon greed and heart to make the owners sweat for once. He knows when push comes to shove, fans realize the sport will always be bigger than any crest.
McCraney’s fast-talking, dialogue-heavy script is married perfectly with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven pacing and subterfuge because it allows us to realize something is going on without yet fully grasping the logistics. As NBA players’ association representative Myra (Sonja Sohn) relays to Ray’s assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), her describing her boss as being “off” is actually his being “in.” He’s got the wheels turning because he acknowledges what this lockout means to the sport’s future and himself personally. Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto) has frozen his expense account because the NBA branch of their agency has been bleeding too much now that nothing is coming in. Since the players aren’t budging (rightfully so), he knows the owners must. And he knows exactly how to make them desperate enough to do so.
What follows is as much a con game as a maestro conducting a symphony. Ray is riling up his client (Scott) and the other rookie everyone compares him with despite both being teammates (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley‘s Jamero Umber). He’s fanning flames to break these young men out of the sterile prisons their team erected so their passion can ignite and get the public excited about basketball again. Ray is reading those involved whether Myra or the owner taking point on the opposite side of negotiations (Kyle MacLachlan‘s David Seton), gauging their attitudes to figure out what buttons to press for maximum impact. Is he using some without their knowledge (including his client)? You bet. But he has the players’ best interests in mind—something he maybe didn’t years ago.
The result is a philosophically charged treatise on the racial disparity in this country as much as how corporations wield that prevalent dichotomy to earn millions off the backs of others’ talent. This content courtesy of McCraney and the great actors on-screen is where High Flying Bird excels because the theatricality of things along with Soderbergh’s iPhone aesthetic leaves a lot to be desired. (It often reads like a stage-play whereas Barry Jenkins created visual poetry from the playwright’s words for Moonlight.) Again, though, that’s where the Netflix model is perfectly suited to the project. No one else was giving more money to make things flashier and honestly setting up a camera to watch these artists talk is all the script really needs to foster its radicalized power.
[1-3] Photo by Peter Andrews