A hard-fought game of one-on-one serves as a crucial plot point in Steven Soderbergh’s lean and lithe sports caper High Flying Bird, which will be released Friday on Netflix. The game, played between two NBA teammates with a beef, is witnessed in full by a bunch of rowdy kids at a Bronx basketball camp, but it’s witnessed by us only in the raucous, shaky social media posts those kids share. As those snippets—a drained 3, teens going crazy on the sidelines—propagate into the film and onto the phones of NBA fans, I became desperate to see more of this on-court battle. That desperation, and the opportunities it presents, is in some ways the subject of High Flying Bird, which cleverly elides showing its centerpiece basketball game but delivers scene after crisply shot scene of tactical, emotional one-on-one between the power players who inhabit this world.
The first of those contests is the propulsive showdown that starts the movie, a fractious lunch between agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and recent first-round draft pick Erick Scott (American Vandal breakout Melvin Gregg). The NBA is deep into another lockout as the owners and the union struggle to negotiate a new deal, and Erick, who signed a contract but hasn’t yet been paid, is having money trouble. Through the five-minute scene, shot with geometric precision by Soderbergh, Ray is unflappable and adroit, counseling and scolding his angry, embarrassed young client in just the right measure. At the end of the lunch, Ray hands the young man a package, tells him that inside it is “a bible—not the Bible, a bible” and advises him to open it later.
Ray seems infallible at that moment, which is just when the restaurant’s manager tells him his credit card’s been declined. Turns out Ray’s in trouble, too.
Cannily scheduled by Netflix to release just after the NBA trade deadline, at the end of a week basketball fans have spent eagerly consuming rumors about young men being moved around the league like property, High Flying Bird is written by the playwright and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight, in which Holland also starred) as a kind of workplace heist movie with insurgent undertones. Our hero Ray must wheel and deal, wheedle and needle, playing every side at once: his client, a sharp, sensitive star-in-the-making; the head of the players union (The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), a longtime friend; his ex-assistant (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz), who’s got her own angle; and the president of the local franchise that drafted Erick (coded as the Knicks, but carefully referred to as “New York”), played by a well-oiled Kyle MacLachlan. We trust, because this is a Steven Soderbergh movie, that Ray is one step ahead of everyone, including us, and that he’s playing a long game the objectives of which will be satisfyingly revealed.
Holland’s performance is expressive and precise, as he chews on McCraney’s rat-a-tat dialogue and navigates treacherous conversations with the expertise of Indiana Jones making his way through booby traps. Sometimes you need to tiptoe, and sometimes you just bull forward. Ray loves the game, and he loves the players who play it; he tells the story of a cousin who became his first client after hitting the eighth-grade growth spurt he never got. But Holland’s deft performance makes it clear that even had Ray sprouted, he wasn’t meant to play that game. He’s too good at this one. (He also bricks a couple of short-range jumpers the one time he gets on a court.)
At a crucial moment in High Flying Bird, Ray begs Erick to think bigger. They don’t need the league, he says. “This makes you the decider, brother.” In this scene, Holland towers above Gregg, who, as he does for nearly the whole film, hunches over, hiding his height. “That game is over. It’s your game now, if you want it.” There’s more to Ray’s plans than his 10 percent. In a league in which power is concentrated at the top and the players Ray reps can lose everything, as he says, “that day when the court ain’t dry and they lose an ankle,” Ray wants to overturn the established order. In the short term, that means taking advantage, during the lockout, of fans’ desire—of my desire—to see the game by letting players make and get paid for their own matchups, setting them free from their gilded chains.
That thorny connection between bondage and sports is one McCraney explores with care and humor throughout his energetic screenplay. A legendary youth coach played by Bill Duke shakes his head in despair each time the subject comes up: “I have a rule on my court,” he says. “Anybody who refers to the institution of slavery in front of me, particularly in reference to basketball or its players, must say the words, or they are banished forever.” Long trained by that rule, Ray rolls his eyes and intones, “I love the Lord and all his black people.” But Ray also takes the comparison seriously, as does the movie. In its portrayal of black athletes and their families navigating a system that both depends on them and abases them, High Flying Bird is a low-key act of subversion that just happens also to be a sleek, entertaining drama. (Let us praise, among its other pleasures, its perfect 90-minute running time.) When that package containing Erick’s bible finally does get opened, it confirms the rabble-rousing spirit High Flying Bird exhibits throughout. This testament to the racial injustice of a plutocrat-driven economic system will be streamed this weekend into an unthinkable number of American homes. Like Ray, Soderbergh plays the game while also undermining it. Like Ray, High Flying Bird is a revolutionary wearing a beautiful suit.