Hoop (as Political Thriller) Dreams
You’ll never catch me shelling out cash for PPV but two of my favorite sports movies of all time are Rocky and Raging Bull. In the ring, Avildsen and Sly romanticize every upper right hook, every counter, and every knockout. It’s boxing, yes, but it’s also dancing, and maybe even high art. Scorsese, meanwhile, paints quite a different picture. His pugilism is ugly, guttural, and unforgiving. And yet, in my humble opinion, both films capture a truth about boxing. It helps of course, that we get to see a lot of boxing. It would be impossible to tell those stories without the ring.
For some reason, film and television about hoops these days doesn’t seem to care about depicting the action on the beautiful 94-foot court anymore. First there was Survivor’s Remorse, a STARZ four season dramedy vaguely based on Lebron James’ life. When I tapped out after two seasons, I probably saw star baller Cam Calloway dribble and shoot a basketball for less than a minute total. Instead, the show functioned more as a family ensemble, giving primacy to Calloway’s off the court life including his relationship with his cousin/manager.
Now we have High Flying Bird, a new Netflix original film recently released to strong reviews. The brilliant and under-appreciated Andre Holland links up with one Steven Soderbergh to try to recreate the magic from The Knick. Only, much like my beloved Knicks, I mostly just ended up feeling disappointed.
Shot on iphone and penned by Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird stars sports agent Ray Burke (Holland), who tries to keep himself and his top rookie client Erick Scott afloat during an NBA lockout. His job is on the line as the pro hoops world has been brought to a standstill. But with the help of his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz of Atlanta fame), he fights back.
Read some of the reviews of this movie, though, and you’ll be seduced into believing that the script is crisp and straightforward and that Smartest Guy in the Room Burke conceives of a plan to end the lockout and save his hide within a reasonable timeframe. “A sports agent pitches a rookie basketball client on an intriguing and controversial business opportunity during a lockout,” so reads IMDB’s logline.
Here’s my rundown: After a lot of talking heads and scenes that drag on long past their end, eventually Burke pitches a “controversial business opportunity during a lockout.” See, High Flying Bird kind of has Mo Better Blues syndrome, another movie with an all world director, a talented cast, and promising moments. But the beginning of the movie starts darn near at the end.
Eventually — and I do mean eventually — Burke’s client Erick ends up in a one-on-one game with a teammate/rival at a charity event that ends up going viral. Consistent with new hoops movies, we barely see any of that game. Instead, we cut to the aftermath. A video is plastered all over social media and a potential new league — professional ballers playing each other sans a middleman— is born. This eventually causes a scare amongst the powers that be, and is in part why the lockout finally comes to a close.
Whether you fly along with High Flying Bird depends a lot on if you’re compelled by the dialogue-heavy scenes of Power Broker A facing off against Power Broker B. There are many. This is a political thriller, with bombastic characters talking about a new world order in hoops. To the film’s credit, the smartphone camera makes it feel like we’re getting a sneak peak at meetings we’d never be allowed into.
This is also a play. Rather than seeing things changing, we hear about them changing, where your belief hinges on whether you believe in what the characters are saying. But while I could get down with Thirteen Days and a behind the scenes look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, this seemingly privileged perspective just doesn’t resonate with me when it comes to basketball. This as I’d argue the actual NBA game has never been more cinematic and dynamic. Just watch the way the Spurs had the ball on a string in 2014. Or the Warriors too, I guess.
The narrative is occasionally interrupted by interviews with recent top NBA prospects like Donovan Mitchell and Karl Anthony Towns. While these familiar faces help bring some authenticity and authority to the world, their placement feels willy nilly and arbitrary, not necessarily elaborating on or reversing a specific moment in the story.
Just like Survivor’s Remorse, High Flying Bird is impossible to entirely dismiss. It was great to see Holland in particular after his unresolved cliffhanger as Algernon in The Knick get to play another whip-smart black man, this time without the ceiling of the not always Progressive Era. He’s not in awe of his boss at the start of the movie, and is more brazen in each successive scene.
I also loved the sequence where Burke travels to Philly to try to poach another NBA player and squares off against that player’s mom, a businesswoman who might not have the formal pedigree, but is just as sharp. At one point she grills him about religion and I’m loving the way this new golden era of black entertainment is able to poke fun at tradition while still remaining respectful about the value and importance of religion in our community. To me, this illustrates that we’re freer in our media than we’ve ever been, and that not everything needs to be so precious. The Burden of Representation is loosening.
There’s also a running gag with Burke’s mentor figure Spence (Bill Duke of you done F’ed Up fame), who demands that everyone recite “I love the lord and all his black people,” whenever slavery is invoked in the here and now. It was unclear to me if Spence is tired of the invocation or not, but I actually love the ambiguity.
Of course, in the black-dominated leagues of the NBA and NFL, the power dynamic between owner and player has been compared to slavery more than a few times. And while some reviews praise the film for playing with this dynamic, I’m just not seeing it strongly enough. For starters, neophyte Erick Scott is painted a bit too thinly and his voice drowned out by his gregarious agent and other more powerful players in this world. It’s not until the end that we start to understand a bit more about what he actually wants.
High Flying Bird is available for streaming on Netflix at this exact moment.