Movie Review: ‘High Flying Bird’
Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh
Starring: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, and Sonja Sohn
Plot: A basketball agent struggles to make deals during a player lockout
Director Stephen Soderbergh never met a camera he didn’t want to use to shoot an entire movie on. For High Flying Bird, he used an iPhone for the second time (the first time was last year’s Unsane). Next year, he’s going to use a Polaroid camera, and we’ll all have to buy the flipbook to experience it. And it will be awesome!
The iPhone, according to Soderbergh, was a freeing piece of technology. As it is compact and pretty much the only piece of equipment needed to shoot the movie, there are a number of exterior shots he was able to just stop when he found a nice part of the city and shoot the damn thing. Overall, it pairs really well with Soderbergh’s trademark style of lived-in realism and verbose dialog. Normally, those things are diametrically opposed, but Soderbergh has always made them feel like one and the same. The dialog doesn’t dance with lyricism, it carries with it the weight of personal history.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t also catch a bit of Spike Lee in the way this movie was styled. Occasionally, the narrative is interrupted by black and white talking head style interviews with real life NBA players, where they are giving careful but candid remarks about what it means to be a team player. I found it pretty reminiscent of Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It. That’s the fantasy. The narrative is the reality, where a bunch of billionaire owners are pretty damn comfortable to wait out millionaire players during a lockout. It stresses the institutionalized racism that comes with what is essentially owning black bodies.
This sensitive and smart outlook on the youthfully excited but wasteful spending of player salaries is thanks to playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also co-wrote Academy Award winner, Moonlight. He has his hand on the pulse of further nuances of the black American experience. With Moonlight, it was the even less privileged gay black experience that struggles to find a place in either minority group. With High Flying Bird, it is looking at the lucky few to have high salaries, giving more attention to the uneasy partnership that allows such success rather than the obvious comforts that come with being financially secure.
The moral center of that theme is Bill Duke’s Spence, a for-love-of-the-game coach and community leader. He drills into the kids he coaches the exceptionalism that comes with playing the game for the sake of the game, especially since before 1950 the game was segregated. Spence also requires anyone who makes an off-hand remark about slavery to repeat the mantra, “I love the Lord and all his black people.” It’s a nice punctuation mark to each and every remark the threatens to normalize a dissmissive tone when it comes to slavery. It is also a constant reminder to us what is really at stake when the agents and businessmen play games with the careers of players that are essentially children.
I almost feel guilty watching the likes of Andre Holland (our main agent), Zazie Beets (his former assistant who is playing her own angles), and Sonja Sohn (the head of the player’s union) as they battle wits with legalese and marketing pitches. It’s more like Moneyball than “Entourage,” thoughtful chess-like moves and sleight of hand. Not boastful, curse-fueled attempts at intimidation. Soderbergh captures the same energy of Ocean’s 11 without any of the glitzy set pieces or cool soundtrack. The soundtrack with this movie might be its only problem. Each time a song played during a scene it felt off. It never quite fit, and I found it distracting enough to wince each time it happened.