Soderbergh and Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McRaney offer a cold, lyrical look at race and power in the NBA, a potent metaphor for the power of true independent filmmaking.
As film distribution becomes a mass of newly spouted tiers and platforms and producers panic about where to throw money, a groundswell threatens to unseat formerly dominant modes of filmmaking. The fear producers harbor of being dethroned by new ideas and money that doesn’t need to pass through their hands manifests itself in movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, not just their being made but their being readied to receive dozens of awards. White moneymen are scared that audiences will turn to black filmmakers for narratives that better reflect their taste and experience, and so movies with ancient narratives about the usefulness of white allies or the necessary martyrdom of queer outsiders are trotted out and given the industry’s thumbs up to prove that they will always be needed and made.
The mission is to ensure that the same white voices will always be needed because they always make money and win awards. It doesn’t matter who directs these movies (Boheman Rhapsody is being tossed at awards bodies with an X under “Directed by,” if you need proof of the mercenary nature of these gatekeepers) but simply that they’re high profile and prove the value of everyone who made them happen.
Enter Steven Soderbergh, who has known from the beginning that the system is a game easily rigged or cheated, waiting to be ended. A few years ago he made headlines by announcing his retirement from filmmaking, but what he was really doing was vowing to never work the same way again. He went to Cinemax, a pay channel, and made The Knick, directing every episode of its two-season run as if he were making a 20-hour movie. He then returned to filmmaking in secret with independent funding and a promised slot on Amazon Prime for the home video release of Logan Lucky, letting the names of high profile collaborators like Daniel Craig, Adam Driver and Channing Tatum do all the advertising work for him. Then he worked on Mosaic, an HBO movie that started life as a choose-your-adventure style storytelling app for iPhone. All of this he did with begging money from the usual people.
Soderbergh found a way to jailbreak filmmaking like a piece of corporate software, making the films he wants with the radical aesthetic experimentation he had begun when he discovered digital filmmaking in the early 2000s without needing to kowtow to anyone’s whims but his own. And with this freedom he’s decided to lend a hand to those who need one. High Flying Bird is his anarchist’s cookbook for besting capitalist systems and getting narratives out into the light that they would keep in darkness.
Ray (André Holland) is a blustery, no nonsense sports agent who has let skeletons pile up in his closet over the years. His star client, a new draft pick named Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), is in financial trouble because he took a predatory loan the minute an NBA lockout held up his signing to the league. The lockout’s hurt Ray in other ways as the firm he works for has decided they can’t keep him on if no more money comes in. Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto) tells him he’s likely fired unless the player’s association, the TV networks and the NBA can figure out a deal. Ray brainstorms with the help of his old friend and current youth coach Spencer (Bill Duke) and comes up with an idea to at least get people talking about his young client. A scheme involving Twitter, a popular rival’s mother (Jeryl Prescott) and a charity event sets the wheels in motion to get everyone talking about Erick Scott and his performance on and off the court.
Duke’s presence was a very carefully selected element of this story, as specific as the parcel Ray gives Erick in the first scene which isn’t opened until the last. Duke was one of a handful of Black artists who used Hollywood’s money against it, taking roles in movies like Commando and Predator to pay for art like Deep Cover, A Rage in Harlem, Sister Act 2 and Hoodlum, which paid the salaries of hundreds of black actors and technicians and put black faces on American movie screens and televisions. He gamed the system to make way for a new generation of black artist.
Soderbergh is attempting much the same thing, acting as a conduit for Holland’s performance (he’s also an executive producer) as well as the rest of the cast of relative newcomers and veterans alike (The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn plays the head of the player’s association, Gregg, Zazie Beetz, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley and Caleb McLaughlin all give show-stopping performances as stars in Holland’s orbit). The script is by Moonlight producer Tarrell Alvin McCraney and it sizzles with an original cadence and rhythm, allowing Holland, Gregg, and Duke to speak in different but equally considered modes throughout, their generational differences and wants bleeding into their diction and speed.
The film is honest about the way people speak and the way friends and colleagues insult each other with and without meaning to. It’s a language of economics, of varying needs and powerplays, and it deliberately has the feeling of watching players with disparate styles on the court. Every interaction is a negotiation, an attempt to wrest the ball away from whosever in command if only to get their attention. Soderbergh lets everyone showcase the difference between their natural selves and the ones they allow seen by the public, because as Duke’s career likely taught him, there’s the guy who appears in movies, and the guy working behind the scenes to give power and money to black artists.
As for Soderbergh’s direction, its typically engrossing, his compositions on the iPhone as beguiling and off-kilter as he’s come to allow us to expect. It’s his version of both the 70s political romp (think The Candidate or WUSA) and the 70s sports movie (think Slap Shot or North Dallas Forty) with his usual Richard Lester-derived new wave fashion. It moves at just his speed into nearly subterranean meeting places to show the gremlins (including a particularly grotesque Kyle MacLachlan as an NBA official) who pretend to keep the world spinning. Soderbergh’s hungover shades of blue and intense reds and oranges are here, stranding the viewer in a sea of power and money, and they’re given new intensity by the sensitivity of the iPhone’s censors.
He does wonders with perspective and horizontal and vertical lines framing his cast, forcing us to think about the direction of power and the high stakes for which everyone plays. A late shot of Holland in front of the freedom tower is not only unconventionally lovely but a reminder that bucking the dominance of economic systems is a worthy goal, in sports, in filmmaking, and in life. Look what happens when we let unchecked greed become the dictator of internal and foreign policy: the little people lose.
High Flying Bird ends on a note that will likely prove cryptic to many, as it introduces a sort of architectural element to the story of which only a handful of people will understand the significance. This is a film that invites you to carry it and its message with you out into the real world. Put simply: no system that owns you is worth supporting or believing in. If you remove the power of your image from the game, the game can’t profit from your labor. Soderbergh did just this when he stopped taking studio money and likely scared the hell out of people by proving he could work for TV just as easily and with more control over his vision. Duke did it when he founded his own production company, and Dr. Harry Edwards did it when he told Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise their fists with Olympic Gold around their necks and does it still today when he meets with Colin Kaepernick.
If you don’t know who Edwards is, it’s time to pick up his book The Revolt of the Black Athlete (the film’s version of a bible), recognize your place in the system and start to think about whether you want to stay there. Capitalism doesn’t work unless we all pretend it’s the only way forward. High Flying Bird is an invitation to revolt – how gently or violently is up to you.
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