FILM REVIEW: Thought-provoking sports movie taps into the dark side of basketball
Technological innovations helped give this film and fresh and distinctive look and feel
Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, High Flying Bird, is a sports movie that does not have the usual nostalgic and motivational feel-good tone that most sports films tend to have.
Instead of sentimentality, we are shown an underbelly of professional sports. We see how athletes are exploited in their prime years and then thrown out when they cannot perform as they used to, or are ostracised when they do not conform to the long-standing culture of their sport. Soderbergh attempts to show us what needs to change and how this change can be brought about.
High Flying Bird tells the story of a sports agent named Ray Burke, played with fierce momentum by André Holland, who is trying to bring an end to a lockout: a process where athletes are on strike to get a fair share of the money made from their labour from the owners of the National Basketball Association (NBA). This is the longest lockout in history and Burke has to do something drastic to end it with favourable terms for the players.
With help from his assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), Burke convinces one of the new players in the league, Eric Scott (Melvin Gregg), to appear at a charity event where he ends up playing a one-on-one game with another new kid-on-the block, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley). This innocent match-up sets off a series of events that threatens to change the status quo in basketball forever.
The script, written by the Oscar-winning co-writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney, is well-researched and goes into the issues and concerns of players in the NBA. However, it has quite a slow pace and it takes a while for one to figure out what is going on. But, just like one of 2018’s most creative films — Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You — High Flying Bird rewards you for your patience.
Similarly to Sorry to Bother You, this is a film that provides a nuanced critique of what American scholar Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, calls the “white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal” system we live in. It does the work of not just talking about the economics of capitalism, but also engages the psychology of what it means to opt in to this system as a black person.
However, unlike Riley's film, McCraney’s script goes further and provides a possible solution to the problem that does not involve overturning the system with mass protest action. The film seems to suggest that an alternative can be provided by modern technology.
High Flying Bird makes this point in multiple ways, in both elements of the story as well as some technical aspects of the film-making. After Eric and Umber’s one-on-one match is recorded and posted online, other players start to sell out venues in Las Vegas and Miami where they play each other as individuals and teams of three. Ray is then contacted by both Facebook and Netflix for the streaming rights of a rematch between Eric and Umber. In this way, as Ray says in the film, a lot of power is taken away from “those in the skybox and put back in the hands of those behind the ball”.
Soderbergh shot this film with an iPhone 8 smartphone, fitted with a wide-angle lens. Speaking before the premiere screening at the Slamdance Film Festival in the US in January, Soderbergh said this allowed him to immediately see what kind of footage he had, because he did not have to wait for film to be developed. As a result, Soderbergh said that he would go home and watch all the day’s footage and adjust the next day’s schedule if necessary.
In addition to the practical benefits of shooting with an iPhone, there is an aesthetic one too: the film has a fresh and distinctive look that sets it apart from other Hollywood films. This seems intentional: it is almost as if Soderbergh is saying that in today’s world, anyone with a smartphone and a dream can become a filmmaker. And he is using his influence as one of the biggest directors in Hollywood to help with the experimentation that will ultimately lead to giving people this power.
This is just one of numerous innovations that modern technology has provided for the decentralisation of content creation. YouTube and Soundcloud, for example, have given many people the power to create content that would never have been green-lit by television networks and radio stations. This content makes important contributions to many discourses.
High Flying Bird is like no other film. It is a highly entertaining sports movie that transcends the genre and will leave audiences either perplexed and uncomfortable or excited for the future. It talks about what is wrong with our society in general and provides possible solutions to help us build a better world for tomorrow.
High Flying Bird is currently streaming on Netflix.