‘High Flying Bird’ Review: A Rousing Drama Takes on Sport, Race, and Class

It’s been mostly garbage in theaters this week, and most of you don’t often make it to the theater, anyway. So instead, in the hopes that I might lead you toward a movie you’ll actually watch and enjoy, I’m bringing you a review of a movie recently released on Netflix. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who also wrote “Moonlight”), the film is called “High Flying Bird.”

The film seems to be about basketball, but it’s actually about the equally competitive game of money-making and political scheming that occurs behind the game we usually see. The players in this game are agents, owners, advertisers, and managers — the basketball players are present, but are by no means the stars. If anything, they often become the pawns. It’s what “Bird’s” community basketball coach Spence (Bill Duke) calls “a game on top of a game.”

The film opens on the underdog-star of the game on top of the game, Ray Burke (Andre Holland). Ray is lecturing his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), an up-and-coming No. 1 draft pick whose debut has been indefinitely delayed by an NBA lockout of the sort that actually occurred in 2011. Erick has just fallen for a dumb loan offered to him by someone trying to make quick money off of his naivete. The scene begins the film’s scathing critique of the way the industry owns, markets, betrays, and generally exploits talented and naive young players like Erick. The critique is aided throughout the film by occasional snippets of interviews with actual NBA players discussing the industry.

The film picks up when Ray, whose talent is to see the industry for the game that it is, hatches a plan to allow the players — who as of now, can’t afford to delay salary negotiations nearly as long as the (almost entirely white) owners — to cut out the owners from the profit chain by hosting unofficial one-on-one games that they plan to stream online. Since this is a film shot entirely on an iPhone (really) and a star, Scott, played by Gregg, who got his start on Vine (really), form meets content in convincing fashion.

Illustration By Ben Murphy

“Bird” moves along rapidly, and as soon as you start to figure out what Ray is up to, he makes another move. As in Soderbergh’s heist movies, like “Ocean’s Eleven,” the full scope and genius of Ray’s plan is revealed only in the final 20 minutes of the movie. The downside here is that, unlike a heist, there isn’t all that much action to be seen here. Instead, the movie consists mostly of a series of heated conversations, which are often full of impassioned monologues. But Holland was the perfect actor for the role, and his supporting cast is excellent — especially Zazie Beetz as his ex-assistant and Sonja Sohn as the head of the player’s association — so there’s hardly a dull moment to be found.

Impressively, “Bird” manages to be a self-consciously heady, moral film without being the slightest bit boring (which is the risk of being too heady) or simplistic (which is the risk of moralizing). And I do mean heady: a book recommendation provides one of its most crucial moments.

By the end, you’re left thinking about race, class, and power, but not by way of a simple critique of capitalism headed by a noble proletarian hero. The movie is more complicated than that, and rightly so. Ray wants to seize power from the owners and put it in the players’ hands, but he also wants some of that power for himself. He wants justice, but he also wants revenge. The movie thrives on this sort of realistic ambivalence, and may even place it at its core. The payoff is that “Bird” gets you to think, while still offering good fun.

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