Feb 26, 2019
Here’s the second Netflix Original film for the week, and the first to be a runaway hit with the critics. It’s hard not to do that when you pair the writing styles of Tarell Alvin McCraney, screenwriter for “Moonlight” (Episode #406), with the directing ability of Steven Soderbergh, of which we’ve reviewed two films so far: “Logan Lucky” (Episode #065) and “Unsane” (Episode #240). And for another film in the same vein, check out “Amateur” (Episode #103), about a pre-professional basketball player taking a different approach to organized basketball. And if you have any suggestions, reach out to us over social media.
Here we go!
Today’s movie is “High Flying Bird” (2019), the Netflix Original drama directed by Steven Soderbergh and written for the screen by Tarell Alvin McCraney. In the midst of an NBA lockout, sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) creates a unique opportunity for his client and incoming rookie Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), with the help of his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), which challenges the very power structure of the league.
The thing I am most excited about after seeing this film is the future career of Tarell Alvin McCraney. You heard me gush about how much I loved “Moonlight” (Episode #406), especially how it deals with LGBTQ people within the black community. In today’s film, he offers a realistic look into the bizarre power structures within the NBA, and the possibility for a more equitable future going forward, using many of the themes from Harry Edwards’ book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”, including very strong parallels between the ownership rights of NBA owners and the ownership rights of former slave owners over their subjugated populations. Sure, we might think the generally high salaries of NBA players make that comparison ludicrous, but all NBA players are forced to sign contracts that come with severe restrictions on behavior with heavy penalties. And when it comes to a lockout, which is when the owners refuse to schedule games over contract negotiations, players aren’t generally getting paid, and can’t go and find work elsewhere during the lockout. And for the multi-million dollar players, that’s fine if they managed their money, but for the rest of the players, that’s possibly not making rent in major cities, or not being able to help others with their paychecks back home.
And let’s face it, the owners need the players way more than the players need the owners, which is the central theme of today’s film. Established power structures often seem impossible to change. One of my favorite quotes in recent times is that people have an easier time imagining the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism. We sign away a lot of rights when we are employed by capitalists, whether that’s particular behavior considerations while working, to severe restrictions on many aspects of our lives outside of work like drug use or secondary work, to more nefarious structural restrictions, like hiring part-time workers requiring full-time availability. This film challenges the idea of billionaires having that kind of control over their workers, not just in the NBA, or even in the rest of professional sports, but for all of us working in the same kind of ownership circumstances.
How do we challenge this kind of established power structure? By looking at the situation from multiple and sometimes unusual perspectives, which is what makes Soderbergh such a great pick to direct this film. Soderbergh loves to find both stationary and moving camera angles to tell stories, and this film is no exception, including some wonderfully blended transitions between and around key scenes. He also employs his slightly signature flashback montages to fill in some key story gaps, which works especially well in this case, as what we see and hear about NBA negotiations is not what’s always happening behind the scenes. He also uses an excellent improvised documentary technique with the players that heightens the realness of being a player within the NBA, and beyond the image portrayed on celebrity gossip sites or within the hip-hop lyrics inspired by the game. I actually wish there was more film, because the ninety-minute running time is way too short for the richness and possibilities of the story. I also thought a few scenes felt empty, possibly because of the narrow running time. So, great story, great message, and great direction, with a few imperfections.
One of the great things about film is that it gives us an opportunity to explore ideas that can change the nature of our society by showing us what’s possible. And this film, along with “Amateur” (Episode #103) both challenge the existing ownership structures of professional sports, even if they only suggest how it might start. Now I’m interested in seeing how a player-owner league might work out, and just how far they can extend that ownership to benefit the communities that support the players, and the communities form which they come. Right now, the billionaire owners and the broadcast partners take huge profits that could be used for living wage jobs at stadiums, merchandise stores, adjacent industries, and community outreach programs. It is the kind of redistribution model we need to shore up not just the players, but also the staff and fans that support them.
“High Flying Bird” (2019) is an incredible collaboration between Tarell Alvin McCraney and Steven Soderbergh, which takes an incisive look at the NBA and the balance of power between the owners and the players. It represents a critique not just of the current ownership model, but also larger notions of social and financial control. Fans of sports films, and folks interested in how to radically change the nature of professional sports, should definitely check out this film.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 8.6/10
“High Flying Bird” (2019) is rated TV-MAand is currently playing on Netflix.