‘High Flying Bird’ Cements Itself As The Newest Basketball Drama

This is the tale of black mens’ relationship to black joy; and seeing it held hostage by those in power. With a creative team that includes Academy Award winners director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and writer Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s (Moonlight) High Flying Bird is the artists’ microscope into an agent’s hustle in the midst of the NBA lockout. The sports drama drops a week before All Star Weekend where we honor the league’s most talented/ personal favorites. As we take off for the Sprite Slam Dunk Competition, High Flying Bird plops right in front of you with the high stakes.

McCraney with the Assist and Soderbergh with a Bank Shot

Melvin Gregg as Erick Scott and André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Photo by Peter Andrews

“I love the Lord and all his black peoples”

Ray (Andre Holland, Moonlight) a sports agent, represents a rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg, American Vandal) at a time where contracts are shaky and vulnerability creates potential lawsuits. While the fleeting nature of youth makes folks make questionable decisions Ray serves as both a father figure and a legal counterpart. Passion becomes a struggle when organizations no longer want to cooperate. Therefore; this causes folks to take desperate measures in order to protect their livelihood.

The Game Plan

Here in this narrative: from talks about contracts, to court beef and passion, the black hustle reinvents itself in various capacities. Important metaphors to take notice of is the usage of the court in different layers outside of the game. The creative team showcased a career on the defense and the offense. These ideas are then posted against political experiences surrounding the black body as a commodity. High Flying Bird showcases the black hustle even in its turmoil just like history when we built the country.

We see sports through slavery metaphors. (The selling of the black body). Viewers would also be able to watch doubt, and isolation (disenfranchisement of the black body). Both of these ironic, as people of color make up the majority of this organization that white people control. McCraney does not shy away from showcasing how the black body is used as a jester to please the white gaze as blackness once again slips into the mode of rebellion in order to survive.

Blockin’ Shots: Ray on The Defense

“I can see a whole infrastructure that puts the control back in the hands of those behind the ball”

One aspect that I appreciated throughout the film is the consistent comparison between basketball and slavery. Normally when bringing blackness and slavery in the same playing field, it leaves great room for corniness and can lose the message fast. The consistent contrast between “the love of the game” and the capitalistic issues that turn our joys into commodity becomes a form of slavery in itself. When the contracts are no longer viable, what is left but our passions and empty pockets? When it comes to High Flying Bird‘s slavery metaphors, the black body is used as the contract. Consistently being controlled by those who benefit from your labor. Viewers would be able to analyze how this allows black joy to live in a space when it only uphold’s a white paycheck.

The defense begins when your livelihood is slowly being stripped away from you. Ray begins to set up for the survival of his passions as the company holstering him up, tears his livelihood down.

On the defense you’re analyzing the players around you. Their weak points. What will get the ball back in your playing field? Throughout the film Ray takes the time to use the roadblocks ahead of him as other players on the court. The roadblocks range from the lock down, potential lawsuits, his shaky job position, other managers and social media rivals. His teammates: His assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz, Atlanta), His rookie Erick, Spence (Bill Duke, Black Lightning) and his legal advisor Myra (Sonja Sohn, The Chi) all help him see different roads to take into account while allowing him to not lose sight of the vision.

Breakin’ Ankles: Team The Offense

“The whole game grew based on our hunger for it”.

The creative team allows consumers to take a trip watching the ball bounce back and forth in Ray’s mind as he plots his come back. Them sitting back and watching things unfold but pulling strings to unravel them further. The role of Sam is important to take notice of. Viewers might see her as the “former assistant” who occasionally meddles but seeing her reveal herself as a motherly over-watch takes time and cultivation. I recognized her as the “control” variable. Her trying to figure out ways how to expand control with her knowledge of people an their mannerisms.

Same with Myra, understanding the legality and overseeing difficulties and how to get away with them. I adore seeing Myra connect the lost points of metaphors, the role of a black woman in the midst of a struggle while dealing with her own issues. Myra and Sam make a great team, especially in a male-dominated industry that consistently tries to swallow and undermine the work of women.

The Dunks, The Fouls and The Turnovers

As amazing as the narrative was, throughout the film some portions were confusing. The content presented itself in three different capacities: Fast, Observational and Static. During the fast-pacing portions, the action was there. I was able to make quick comparisons to previous scenes and see how they match up and got to this point. During the observational scenes it went slow and it felt wonderful. I was able to take in the heat of a scene and feel the passion scattering across the setting. When I heard the words of Kyrie Irving talk about how the love for the game and freedom to express on the court now translates into a commodity? Wow. The problem is the time in-between those moments.

The static was real. When it wasn’t moving really fast or really slow it left me in a fog wondering what is actually happening? Am I supposed to be paying attention to something in particular, is it soaring over my head? The narrative continuously connects, breaks, tries to fill you in so that you can see the “master plan” unfold. Unfortunately it can get a bit sloppy, so instead of a revealing “OHHHHH” it feels more like a “Okay, so why didn’t you just show this from the jump?” In the end this was a bit disconnecting from my watching experience.

Final Score

The highlight of my watching had to be when the camera began to show all the things that words sometime fail to: the different angles that was used to display Ray in moments of power, and in moments of defeat. When it seems as if he didn’t have the upper hand, and we watch him from an overhead shot. When we see him in the office talking about the job and the camera lens shake. The directing was breathtaking in this sense, as we are able to sense the anxiety outside of the page of the script.

High Flying Bird is not only for those who want to understand the scandals beyond the game, it is a great outline for understanding the selling of joy for commodity. This breaks down the hustle into layers and presents it to consumers in a way that it has always been sold: With repercussions and fear of disenfranchisement Catch it on Netflix now and in select theaters.

8.4 Fast Breaks out of 10

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  • Khadjiah Johnson is a Caribbean-American writer and humor advocate who uses poetry and comedy as a leverage to empathize and uplift. Her work has taken her to Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, Apollo Theater, BET, Off-Broadway and many more! She hopes to use her talents to sway her way into the writers room for a Late Night Comedy Show.

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