High Flying Bird review Andre Holland Bill Duke

Year: 2019
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh
Writer(s): Tarell Alvin McCraney
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: n/a
Digital, Color, 90 mins

Synopsis: A sports agent pitches a rookie basketball client on an intriguing and controversial business opportunity during a lockout. (Source)

High Flying Bird is the sports drama we didn’t know we wanted. Whereas most sports films highlight the rise of an underdog, Steven Soderbergh’s latest centers around the business of basketball. It’s about the insidious forms of ownership going on behind the scenes, or, the game behind the game, as one character puts it. Soderbergh, armed with an incredible script from Tarell Alvin McCraney finds humanity in a dark truths surrounding the NBA. Playing out like a call to action, the story addresses a silent form of oppression hidden in plain sight. While many of the film’s ideas are already seeing change in the real world, it presents an incredible primer for systematic, racial power struggles. 

Deep into a lockout that’s hung the NBA out to dry, a sports agent named Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is faced with a frozen salary and anxious clients. His most pressing matter, is a fresh-faced rookie named Erick (Melvin Gregg). Though Erick’s recently been drafted, he hasn’t yet been able to step foot on court and is already in debt. With a lockout that doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon, Ray finds himself placing everything on an ambitious gambit. His only option is one that could cause him and his clients to loose it all. If he succeeds, however, he could call out the league’s oppressive power structure and upset a balance that’s been stagnant for far too long. 

Make no mistake, this is a “talky” film, but it’s also never less than exciting. Instead of wall-to-wall bball action, Soderbergh finds palpable energy through a series of heady conversations. Thanks to McCraney’s razor-sharp dialogue, the story’s relentless rhythm never looks back, barely giving us time to keep up. Filming the entire thing with an iPhone, Soderbergh uses the camera’s compact size to his advantage. This gives each scene a finite focus. The director finds innovative ways to frame the emotion of each scene, using knockout performances to humanize technical business debates. As Ray navigates his way through showdowns with colleagues and clients, the story’s anti-capitalist leanings lock together with machine-like precision. Every scene feels cutthroat, but there’s also a spirit of empowerment that’s hard to miss. 

High Flying Bird review Melvin Gregg Zazie Beetz

The small but spry cast all find their niche, but this is Andre Holland’s showcase. He makes the film hit like a freight truck. I honestly feel like I could listen to Holland passionately talk about anything, and here, his presence is what keeps the film afloat. Unlike the potential stereotype behind his character, Holland’s Ray is a genuinely good guy. He’s molded by personal motivations, he has teeth like a shark, but also cares about the game and his clients. Holland’s conviction sets the ferocious pace. Melvin Gregg, Zazie Beetz and Bill Duke and Kyle MacLachlan fill out the rest of the film, each contributing characters who bring a diverse vigor to everything.

High Flying Bird is jammed with enough ideas and story for a television series, but Soderbergh and McCraney make it work despite an abbreviated feeling. In this way, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and doesn’t waste a single moment. With a story that mirrors larger ideas about black agency in our society at large, this is an important film with something to say. It’s a lightning rod of that strikes deep, fast and leaves a mark.