Despite its vertiginous title, Steven Soderbergh’s new feature primarily concerns the fetid underbelly of an American institution and, to a lesser extent, society at large. While the hoop dreams of inner-city African-American males has long been a subject ripe for narrative drama and documentary, High Flying Bird instead offers a glimpse into the murkier, transactional side of professional basketball.
The film has drawn favourable comparisons to Bennett Miller’s Moneyball – which Soderbergh himself intended to direct back in 2009 before creative differences set him on a different path – though it is more overtly political and spiritual than that. Rather unconventionally, it’s a sports movie in which a ball is hardly bounced, the action taking place almost entirely out of public view and, Kyle MacLachlan’s sauna ambush aside, without a drop of sweat in sight.
Ray Burke (André Holland, a revelation in Soderbergh’s The Knick and again here) is an articulate and savvy New York sports agent caught in the middle of a “lockout” which has bought the current NBA season to a standstill. This not only tests Burke’s relationship with assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) and VIP client Erick (Melvin Gregg) but also threatens his very livelihood. Over the course of 72 hours we watch him attempt to break the impasse while tipping the scales in his favour.
As Burke sets about manipulating and outmanoeuvring rival agents, NBA reps and even his own boss (Zachary Quinto), we get a sense of his intimate knowledge of the business of basketball as well as his passion for the game and those who play it. In private conversations with Scott, he talks about wanting to give athletes more agency and encourages the promising rookie to stop thinking small and start dreaming big. More pointedly, while shooting baskets and the breeze with his mentor, a veteran youth coach named Spence (Bill Duke in his most rewarding role in years), Burke rails against the rampant exploitation and commoditisation of black bodies.
Both men lament the control white administrators and network executives exert over the league’s most valuable assets (“They invented a game on top of the game,” as Spence puts it). But what are they to do about it? Burke’s answer is an ingenious one. As someone who understands the value of image ownership in the information era, he’s able to undermine the NBA by offering a distinctly modern alternate to their existing product. Given Soderbergh’s DIY ethos and reputation as an industry renegade, the audacious, anarchic manner in which Burke executes his game-winning play carries an added significance.
The irony, of course, is that Burke too profits off these young men, leveraging their talent, ambition and inexperience for his own financial gain (to that end, Jeryl Prescott’s mother/agent is arguably an even more fascinating character). Crucially, however, Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, who previously wrote the script for Moonlight, show Burke to be a man of moral integrity who is simply taking advantage of an unfortunate situation.
High Flying Bird was filmed on an iPhone 8 fitted with an anamorphic lens, with Soderbergh once again acting as his own DoP under the alias Peter Andrews. Where he utilised a similar technique to disorienting, conspicuously low-budget effect in 2018’s Unsane, this time around fluid, tripod-fixed long takes establish a sleeker look and rhythm.
As Burke dashes between high-rise office blocks and restaurants to conduct his surreptitious dealings, Soderbergh’s roving, wide-angle camera not only emphasises the imposing glass-and-steel structures which dominate this corporate environment, but also the metaphorical heights Burke – and by extension all black men – must scale in order to achieve greater autonomy in America today.
McCraney deserves great credit for eschewing cheap sentimentality and hard-worn cynicism, which might otherwise have rendered this tale of greed, faith, money and power Moneyball-lite. But it is the radical methods and perspective Soderbergh employs which make High Flying Bird such an urgent and incisive examination of the intersection of race and professional sports. The revolution may not be televised, but it’s likely to be shot on a smartphone.