One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.
At the end of High Flying Bird, a rookie NBA player receives a gift bestowed to him by his former agent: 1969’s seminal The Revolt of the Black Athlete, by sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards.
It is then that the full meaning of Steven Soderbergh’s unconventional sports drama, released on Netflix in February 2019, becomes clear. In a crisp 90 minutes, the film covers thorny issues of labor and class, of dreams lost and found, of the pressure to deliver when millions of dollars, livelihoods and legacies, are on the line.
But it is also a film about Black athlete empowerment. That makes it unusual for a Soderbergh picture; it’s one of the director’s few films with a non-white protagonist. High Flying Bird was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who helped adapt his own stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue into the Best Picture winner Moonlight in 2016. High Flying Bird possesses that film’s same clarity about the predicament of Black people in America and likewise conveys its weighty themes with uncanny subtlety.
And so on top of being a slyly funny and consistently engaging sports spin on more traditional legal dramas, High Flying Bird also feels especially resonant in the days after NBA players stopped playoff games in an unprecedented protest following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The circumstances of the plot could not be more different than the situation the NBA finds itself in today. The NBA is currently completing its season in a Disney World bubble during a pandemic. This week, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, players decided not to play their scheduled games to send a message to the league, especially its largely white owners, about the need to be politically engaged.
In the film, the inciting incident is more mundane: The NBA has come to a standstill because of a contract dispute between the players union and the owners. Sports agent Ray Burke, played by Moonlight’s Andre Holland, must figure out how to tide over his new client, a promising rookie named Erick Scott, and end the lockout.
Yet the same power dynamic that led to this week’s extraordinary events, in which boycotting players persuaded their owners to turn basketball arenas into voting centers, is essential to the film’s narrative.
Burke explains in the opening scene the leverage that his client, as a star player-in-waiting, enjoys over his much more monied employers: “In order to move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services. Too much money at stake.”
The story that follows is told with the kind of cinematic authenticity that typifies most of Soderbergh’s later work. The fictional narrative is intercut by interviews of real NBA players explaining the difficult transition to professional sports, when teenagers a year out of high school and too young to drink receive contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. The film was shot on iPhones (with an anamorphic lens attached) to bring you to the table at a high-end restaurant and inside the cab where a critical meeting takes place. It possesses a propulsive energy thanks to the dialogue of McCraney’s script and Soderbergh’s editing.
On one level, watching Burke, Sonja Sohn’s players union president, and Zazie Beetz’s hypercompetent assistant try to outmaneuver one another and the NBA, personified by a smarmy attorney played by Kyle McLaughlin, is a breeze. They are smart people, who care about their jobs and do them well, with a knack for the withering one-liner. Melvin Gregg of American Vandal and Snowfall, who plays Burke’s rookie client, convincingly conveys both the reckless ego and the insecurity of an 18-year-old about to become unthinkably rich and famous.