Ruairí McCann on Steven Soderbergh’s ‘High Flying Bird‘ (2019)
High Flying Bird is a movie about basketball, but less about the game itself than “the game on top of the game”. Namely the off-court wheeling and dealing staged to maintain the sport as a viable corporate product until that is put on hold by a months-long “lockout”. A stoppage to all official NBA activity — from matches to signings to team training — that was triggered by a player-led labour dispute and protracted by the feet-dragging bigwigs who run the league and hoard a monopoly.
What is on-screen then is only a few seconds of actual play and ninety minutes of verbal power plays. For sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) won’t settle for standing still; he’s out with his nose to the grindstone trying to promote his restless new client, Erick (Melvin Gregg). Though he has an underlying motive that gradually comes to the fore and from which Erick becomes inextricable. Namely, a vision of the game reverted to a more player-oriented and less commodified, or colonised, incarnation.
Holland’s performance is excellent, as someone who is suave, confident, witty and always making little changes to that exterior. Whether he is reacting, correctly, to the mother-manager of another player, who he is trying to recruit for a pivotal publicity stunt, and her own expert push and pull. Or in response to his own inner struggles, for the memory of his eponymous first client, and his contribution to the end of that relationship, both motivates and haunts him.
Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Steven Soderbergh serve this interplay by fitting it to a circuitous form, true to Ray and company and the winding path they take; suitable to people principled yet ambitious within a system that is oppressive yet seemingly impossible to either shake or abandon, given that it’s wrapped around the object of their ideals. A game that they work for and believe in, even as they’re aware of the transformation, undergone, once it’s plucked from its grassroots in black communities, whose labour made it popular in the first place, and remodelled to fit the mores, and pocketbooks, of the white and wealthy. One result is that the framework of the sport, as a business or even a point of discussion, is wedded to the language of racism and specifically ownership and slavery with players, as supposedly free agents, being compared to slave vendors. The owners being the corporates who rule by contracts in which they ‘own’ the players, their statements, image and therefore, their very personages.
Because dialogue is largely the film’s métier, this analogy is translated and proliferated as linguistic pitfalls that are tripped over ad nauseum. McCraney handles this and the quandary of having to navigate the system you’re countering, in part, through a carefully constructed interlace of secondary characters, populated by a formidable supporting cast. This includes Sonja Sohn as Myra, the head of the players’ association. Since she’s not only an ally but a long-time friend of Ray’s, she divulges over a drink that apart from work, she’s busy sussing out the clouds of doubt that form, naturally, on the horizon of parenthood. That she is neither terrified or overjoyed but instead skeptical yet ready and willing to fit it into her career and plans, shows a rarely acute depiction of how people compartmentalise their life. A microcosm of how these characters and professionals in general are often not just striving, monomaniacally, towards some future goal, but are constantly in check with who they are and what they believe and how that can be made compatible with what is happening both at home and work.
The latter and that the answer may be no, it’s not compatible, is brought up via Bill Duke’s role as Spencer, a high school basketball coach and Ray’s confidante, who exhales and carries a hunched over weariness. He’s often around to keep in check those who reference the antebellum institution on his court, and by extension in his presence, by making them recite the mantra ‘I love the lord and all his black people.’ At the same time, he highlights the extent of the mire when even he, the arbiter, who’s on the outside enough to coin the opening quote, slip ups while scolding his students by saying that he ‘owns’ them.
Not only can language be a minefield, but it can be a weapon wielded by the other side. Represented by NBA board member, David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), who seems to be appropriating some of the malevolence the actor issued as Cooper’s Doppelganger in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). He possesses an alien quality, with his flat tones and robotic comportment, as if he’s decked out in another man’s skin. His hollow pretences towards accommodation and a scene where he pointedly corrects Ray when the latter refers to the players as ‘boys’, signals a cynical means of maintaining power and privilege via consuming and regurgitating gestures of superficial reform.
High Flying Bird is streaming on Netflix now.