Midway through Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird,” a taut drama set among rookie players and veteran agents in the midst of an NBA lockout, a wise ex-player played by Bill Duke gives us a CliffsNotes version of the entire history of race in professional basketball. Moving from the Harlem Globetrotters to the NBL to the NBA, he explains how a group of largely white owners and executives managed to build a billion dollar entertainment empire in the backs of primarily black athletes. As he puts it, simply: “They invented a game on top of the game.”
Scarcely showing any footage of the game of basketball itself, Soderbergh’s film is concerned entirely with this meta-game of contract negotiations, TV rights, marketing, labor disputes and barely-concealed racial stratification. Positioned somewhere between William Friedkin’s “Blue Chips” and Soderbergh’s own “Erin Brockovich,” High Flying Bird” is mesmerizingly talky and marvelously acted, and appropriately for a film shot on an iPhone in just two weeks, it never lacks for immediacy. It’s certainly more interested in ideas than characters, and the film stumbles when it makes half-hearted attempts at romantic intrigue or tragic backstories, but its subversive view of race, money and power in modern sports couldn’t be more timely.
The film’s script was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” from which Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was adapted. But anyone expecting a reprise of that film’s dreamlike understatement is in for a surprise, as “Bird’s” thrillingly staged first scene offers an explosion of sharp, rapid-fire dialogue, setting a frenetic tone from which the rest of the film will rarely relent. Here we’re introduced to a fast-talking yet essentially ethical sports agent named Ray (Andre Holland), who meets one of his youngest clients, league newcomer Erick (Melvin Gregg), for some tough love at a chic New York restaurant. A big star in college, Erick has been drafted by a New York team (though the NBA is repeatedly referenced by name, teams never are), but thanks to an ongoing stalemate between players and owners, he’s yet to start receiving a salary, and he’s taken out a bad loan to tide him over. In a Sorkin-esque flurry of righteous truth-telling, Ray explains exactly how Erick messed up, laying bare the series of traps that have been laid out to take advantage of naive young ballers like him. Just as they’re about to leave, with Erick seeming a bit shaken by the fiscal-responsibility browbeating he’s just taken, a waitress arrives to tell Ray his corporate credit card has been declined.
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However heavily the lockout may be weighing on the rookies, Ray’s agency is starting to feel the pinch as well, and he finds a line of newly empty desks back at his office, where his boss (Zachary Quinto) is waiting to explain their dire financial straits. Ray’s salary and expense accounts have all been suspended until the NBA’s labor dispute is resolved, so Ray, never one for half-measures, figures he might as well try to end the lockout himself, and rearrange the whole power structure of the league while he’s at it.
To do this, he’ll need the help of his loyal ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) — who initially serves as something of an audience surrogate, though she’s quick to start developing strategies of her own — and Myra (Sonja Sohn), the world-weary yet tough-as-nails rep for the players association. Without ever tipping his hand to his counterparts or the audience, Ray darts across Manhattan from one tense meeting to another, butting heads with a blandly oleaginous team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) and the Machiavellian “momager” of one of Erick’s teammates (Jeryl Prescott). It’s never entirely clear what Ray is trying to do here, and it’s a testament to Holland’s performance that we can rarely tell, in any given scene, whether he’s piecing together a master plan or frantically improvising by the seat of his pants.
With Soderbergh’s camera emphasizing the sharp, court-like angles and shapes of the sleek lounges and glass-walled offices where these negotiations go down, the film plays like a sports movie even though the characters rarely touch a basketball. McCraney’s script always trusts the audience to keep up with its insider jargon and abrupt twists, and the film is at its most engaging when it allows Ray and his sparring partners to chew over the essential inequities of big-money sports. (In one of the film’s cleverest touches, Bill Duke’s player-turned-youth coach insists all his visitors recite a short little prayer — “I love the Lord and all His black people” — every time they use a flippant slavery metaphor in his presence. Given the underlying structures of both pro and collegiate basketball, this prayer is recited quite a lot.)
At times, however, the film has so much to say about the ethics of professional athletics that it underserves both its characters and its central plot. Ray has a slowly-teased backstory that doesn’t do much to inform his character, and by the time the revolutionary final results of all his scheming and strategizing are unveiled, it’s hard not to wonder if you’ve missed something. Considering how thoroughly and astutely it diagnoses the failures of the existing system, you wish it would explain the contours of its alternative vision with a little more nuance.
All the same, it’s easy to see what must have attracted Soderbergh to this subject, given his career-long ability to weave in and out of the Hollywood ecosystem, approaching new methods of distribution like a raptor testing a fence for weaknesses. (The film even mentions Netflix, which is releasing “High Flying Bird” after its Slamdance premiere, as a possible avenue for subverting the TV networks’ iron-clad grip on pro sports.) After all, if everyone from an Oscar-winning filmmaker to a couple of kids on YouTube can pick up a camera phone and perform an end run around the legacy powers of moviemaking, what’s to stop a few enterprising basketball players from trying to do the same?