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‘High Flying Bird’ and a New Cinematic Vision of Power in Sports

Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix film, which inverts the standard trope that all athletes are replaceable, is so current it almost seems like it’s from the future. In modernizing the message about labor, it forces us to think about player power—and whether athletes need owners, or even a league.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

For a movie ostensibly about the NBA, High Flying Bird includes almost no actual basketball scenes. Steven Soderbergh’s film is concerned with labor union negotiations, broadcast rights, internal politics within a sports agency, and the intersection of race and power in modern basketball. These themes saturate the film like stock does the swollen rice grains of a risotto; only tangentially do we deal with the struggles of no. 1 overall draft pick Erick Scott to find his place alongside teammate and rival Jamero Umber in the Knicks’ backcourt.

At least, we’re meant to believe it’s the Knicks, as the film, made without the cooperation of the NBA, tiptoes around naming teams or, for the most part, the league itself. But make no mistake: High Flying Bird is about the NBA; the film is punctuated by interviews with players Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell about life as rookies. Even the conflict between Erick and Jamero is played out through a social media beef, culminating in a game of one-on-one between Erick and Jamero, only two shaky possessions of which are shown in the film. This is true to life; the real-world NBA is a dramatic multimedia epic, of which the games are just one small part.

That perspective—more than Oscar-winning director Soderbergh taking his film to Netflix or shooting the whole movie on iPhones—makes High Flying Bird modern. We’ve seen plenty of movies about the business side of sports, from Jerry Maguire to Moneyball to Draft Day, but High Flying Bird is so current it almost seems like it’s from the future.

Clearly, screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) didn’t write the script in the past month—principal photography ended 11 months ago—but the film would not have seemed more current if he had.

The NBA has just been through a trade-deadline season in which Anthony Davis issued a demand that seemed designed to send him to one specific team, the Los Angeles Lakers. (Davis and Lakers star LeBron James share an agent.) Over in baseball, where spring training starts in a matter of days, the top two free agents, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, remain unsigned amid a total collapse of the sport’s free-agency system, and MLB seems to be headed inexorably toward a work stoppage. Athletes across all of the major American sports are stretching to explore and expand the limits of their power, both individually and collectively.

High Flying Bird takes place over a long weekend during the sixth month of a pro basketball lockout. Early on, it sets up athletes’ greatest fundamental structural disadvantage in negotiations with ownership: Players earn millions of dollars at a time and think in terms of years, while the owners who are granted dynastic power through corporate or inherited familial wealth make billions and can think in terms of decades, which allows them to wait out players. The film opens with Erick (Melvin Gregg), a rookie who has yet to see his first paycheck, so broke he’s sought help from (and gotten ripped off by) a loan shark. Erick’s agent, Ray Burke (a dazzling André Holland), finds that his corporate expense account has been frozen as his basketball-heavy firm is also tightening its belt.

High Flying Bird’s cinematic style—shot on location, in the damp, teeth-chattering mid-Atlantic winter, with its bracingly bright blue-gray daylight—emphasizes how lean the times are for Erick, Ray, and the Players Association, which is embodied by executive director Myra (Sonja Sohn). Intentionally or not, High Flying Bird evokes oatmeal-eating weather, a reminder that the cold and privation of Washington’s winter camps at Valley Forge are a stone’s throw from where the crypto-NBPA is figuring out how to hang on.

Ray’s solution is to threaten the league’s monopoly by teeing up Erick and Jamero to settle their differences in an impromptu one-on-one matchup at a charity event for the Bronx gym where Erick got his start. Within 48 hours, other exhibition games are organized around the country, and a bidding war for streaming rights ensues—including, in an arch wink through the fourth wall, a bid from Netflix. Ownership is so rattled that it capitulates to the union’s demands and reopens the league rather than risk losing control over the product, i.e., the players.

Most sports movies tend to be, on some level, about how high-level athletes are replaceable. Sometimes they’re about underdogs who merely need the proper training or motivation to upset superior or better-established competition (Rocky, Miracle), or sometimes they’re explicitly about the search to build a winning team on the cheap (Major League, Moneyball). Nowhere is that message conveyed more directly than in the 2000 Gene Hackman vehicle The Replacements. Like High Flying Bird, The Replacements takes place during a work stoppage, a strike by the fictional Washington Sentinels football team. In response to the strike, Washington’s coach (Hackman) recruits a team of scabs, led by Keanu Reeves, and within a matter of weeks molds them into a championship contender. Athletes who want a bigger piece of the pie are villains, posits The Replacements, and the true heroes are those who prove that any star football player can be replaced by literal guys off the street.

High Flying Bird flips that sentiment upside down. Rather than asking whether athletes can be replaced, it asks why, if the public loves athletes so much it’s willing to devote time to obsessing over their social media fights, do these athletes need to give half the revenue they generate to ownership? Early in the movie, sage youth coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells Ray that the NBA only integrated because it was threatened by the success and popularity of the Harlem Globetrotters. Ownership, embodied by a smarmy Kyle MacLachlan and the increasingly omnipresent Glenn Fleshler (True Detective, Billions, Barry), sees immediately that these pickup games, if televised, could cause the public to start asking why it needs owners or even a league, and ownership immediately caves to the union’s demands.

Whether this strategy would work in real life is an open question. During the 1994-95 NHL lockout, multiple groups of star players organized barnstorming tournaments for charity, and the league did not flinch. Still, basketball is more popular than hockey, a point Ray makes explicitly in the film. And the democratization of broadcast rights and the effect of 25 years of repeated lockouts across basketball, football, and hockey have created a new landscape, so who knows?

Regardless of the practicality of cutting out ownership—or threatening to cut out ownership in order to exact a more favorable deal—High Flying Bird is obviously asking different questions than other sports movies, questions about who holds power, why, and whether that distribution is just. And the film’s perspective on those issues is obvious. The movie is bookended by two Richie Havens songs: “High Flying Bird,” from which the film takes its title, and “Handsome Johnny,” a protest song about generations of war, from the American Revolution to Vietnam to protests against segregation, in which nothing changes but the location and the weapons. In the movie’s first scene, Ray hands Erick a package, which he says contains “the Bible,” and tells him to open it later—that he’ll know when. At the end of the film, Ray’s former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), who’s developed a personal relationship with Erick, opens the package to find a copy of The Revolt of the Black Athlete by sociologist Harry Edwards. The film’s final line of dialogue is Sam telling Erick, “You need to read this.” By the movie’s end, the interstitial interviews with Towns, Mitchell, and Jackson begin to feel less like a commentary on Erick’s struggle to break into the NBA and more like an homage to Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic about the communist journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Russian revolution of 1917. As if the message of the movie weren’t made clear through its plot, High Flying Bird punctuates it with a very clear political vernacular.

It’s appropriate that Soderbergh made this film the way he did—quickly, using inexpensive equipment, and with Netflix only coming in to buy the distribution rights after the film was complete. With this script and a cast of actors and actresses from cult favorite TV shows, Soderbergh cut out the business end of the artistic enterprise until the artwork itself was completed, proving screenwriter McCraney’s point: If we don’t need the studios, it’s at least worth asking if athletes need owners.