Netflix dropped a little film starring Andre Holland this past Friday. Not sure if “little” best describes a project directed by Steven Soderbergh, and written by Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney. But that’s what happened as news of the movie first appeared via my (black) Twitter timeline.
Boasting a cast of Holland, Zazie Beatz, Bill Duke and Sonja Sohn, High Flying Bird drops a hammer of a narrative in the not-so-distant future of pro sports. It tackles the very topical issue of ownership and control black athletes possess once they sign the dotted-line. Holland is Ray Burke, a agent battling a changing industry in the midst of a NBA lockout. Sensing the sharks on patrol, he inadvertently devises a plan to not only save his job ,but that of his client (Melvin Gregg). The 72 hours that follows brings the reality of the league, its origins and its future, front and center.
For a novice mind like mine, I never bought into the “$40 million slave” narrative that danced around the NBA and NFL. But as more happens around the idea of paying college athletes, and players sow without reaping more control of the reward, one can’t help but wonder if there is truth to the trope.
We all witnessed the rightful fall of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who in his mind saw nothing wrong with his sentiments toward the players under his tutelage. And comments from execs surrounding King James’ decisions to leave, return and eventually leave Cleveland again, also tip-toed on the line of racially-insensitive. With both the NFL and MLB having their own issues with race, one would be charged to explore a world where the players took total control of not only their trajectory, but the entire ship.
Shot entirely with iPhone cameras, the movie is an honest conversation on that “what if.” Moving with Scandal-like speed, it balances comical quip and heartfelt drama perfectly, feeling every bit real. Holland gives a commanding performance. And Vine-star turned actor Gregg is believable as rookie Eric Scott. However the standout for me was Jeryl Prescott, as a fellow rival NBA teammate’s momager. Her scene with Holland shines light not only on her talent but that of McCraney’s.
In between Burke’s dilemma, High explores other themes — everything from the gift and curse that is social media, to the still very present “don’t ask, don’t tell” code in athletics. It also takes time to step away from the fictional narrative with candid interviews from three present NBA players. Immersed at random throughout, they give the film a psuedo-documentary weight without upending the purpose of the story. They never feel separate from the piece as a whole.
High Flying Bird delivers a familiar story with a new honesty and future-forward design, making it a little big statement for film in 2019.