On a basketball court, “give me the rock” means “pass the ball.” In “High Flying Bird,” an exhilarating and argumentative caper concerning a sports agent, his N.B.A.-rookie client and other interested parties, the phrase takes on a slightly different connotation — something akin to “the workers should seize control of the means of production.”
Notwithstanding the presence of three real-life professional ballers (Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell) giving straight-to-camera testimony about life in the league, this isn’t a sports movie in any conventional sense. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it uses the charisma of athletes and the competitive energy of the game they play to catalyze a feisty, twisty fable of labor and capital in the 21st century.
McCraney, a formidable playwright (his “Choir Boy” is currently on Broadway) and an Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” has composed a densely layered, intellectually demanding agitprop drama that draws on rabble-rousing theatrical traditions (Clifford Odets, Dario Fo) while fixing its gaze squarely on the injustices and absurdities of the present. Soderbergh, shooting almost entirely with an iPhone, conducts a brisk tour of the streets and suites of money-mad Manhattan, with excursions to Philadelphia and the South Bronx.
It’s very much worth digging into the political economy of the movie, but more important, at the outset, is to pay tribute to its craft and ingenuity. McCraney’s script is quite simply an extraordinary piece of writing, idiomatic and poetic in its cadences and pleasingly serpentine in its structure. The challenge for Soderbergh and the more-than-game cast is to turn the artful verbiage into persuasive human speech and the plot machinery into a plausible slice of organic reality. Which it is, helping down the medicine of topicality with the sugar of pop-culture cleverness in the most delightful way.
The slightly distended frames and peculiar angles of the pocket-size camera — and the way Soderbergh, serving as the director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews, makes it twirl, glide and shimmy — create an atmosphere of buoyancy and immediacy. The actors take it from there, above all André Holland, an executive producer of the film and the third member of its central creative team.
Holland (a vital part of both “Moonlight” and “The Knick,” Soderbergh’s Cinemax series) plays Ray Burke, an agent who finds himself in a tight professional and ethical spot. The team owners have locked out the players (as happened in the N.B.A. back in 2011), and the money that keeps everybody afloat is quickly drying up.
In the first scene, Ray is lecturing his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a recent No. 1 draft pick whose professional debut has been postponed, about financial responsibility and personal discipline. It’s a big-brotherly scolding and a pep talk, but also the beginnings of a ruthless critique of the way the system works, exploiting naïve and ambitious young men like Erick even as it promises them fame and fortune.
That idea — that in spite of high salaries and endorsement deals, athletes are fundamentally workers, generating profits for the owning class — is refined and complicated as Ray pinballs from one meeting to the next. He checks in at the office with his boss (Zachary Quinto), engages in energetic screwball banter with his erstwhile assistant, Samantha (Zazie Beetz) and argues dialectics and family-leave policy with Myra (Sonja Sohn), the head of the player’s association.
Other encounters — with a no-nonsense sports mom (Jeryl Prescott), the owner of Erick’s team (Kyle MacLachlan) and Ray’s old friend Spence (Bill Duke), who runs a youth basketball program — follow the same didactic, disputatious pattern. There’s a fair amount of soliloquizing and rhetorical grandstanding, which is also true of Shakespeare, hip-hop and church. If you like any of those, you might enjoy this too.
In the course of all the back-and-forthing, a scheme emerges that strikes Ray as wonderfully simple and potentially revolutionary. What if the players, paralyzed by the intransigence of their employers, could eliminate those middlemen and take control of the fruits of their own talents? It’s a question that resonates beyond the court, the locker room and the broadcast booth, into the worlds of art and entertainment. The racial aspects of the power dynamic that governs organized sports is so obvious that it almost goes without saying. Whenever anyone does say it — when, that is, somebody invokes slavery as a metaphor for current circumstances — Spence demands the recitation of a short prayer: “I love the lord and all his black people.” If there is resignation in those words, there is defiance too.
“High Flying Bird” swoops and cuts through the contradictions of modern culture with the fleet momentum of a power forward destroying a flat-footed defense on his way to the hoop. You don’t quite understand what just happened until the next thing is already happening. The intellectual virtuosity on display is somehow both ostentatious and casual. The performances — Holland’s in particular, full of sadness, guile and audacity — feel the same way.
Not everything works. A back story having to do with Ray’s cousin, a basketball prodigy who met a tragic end, feels like the kind of baggage more suited to the stage than the screen. At moments the busyness of the plot overshadows the wit of the performances. But the occasional raggedness of the movie only enhances the credibility of its ambitions. Like Ray Burke, it’s in a big hurry and has a lot on its mind.
And it leaves you with a lot to think about, in addition to race, class and basketball: what it means to love your work, and why it matters to be paid for it; how utopian visions and tactical calculations work together to create the possibility of change; why we take fun so seriously. It ends not with a big game or a high-stakes showdown but with a protest anthem — by Richie Havens, who also wrote the song that gives the film its name — and a recommendation for further reading. Which I am not about to spoil.