Why Netflix’s High Flying Bird is the perfect post-Last Dance quarantine watch
As the coronavirus quarantine drags on, the lack of sports is really starting to smart. As John Oliver put it in his latest Last Week Tonight monologue, "One of the things that sport does best is bring people together in times of crisis.... Unfortunately, bringing people together is the exact thing we should not be doing right now." Thankfully, ESPN’s 10-part Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance was able to fill that sports-shaped hole in our collective entertainment experience for a few weeks.
But now that The Last Dance has finished its run and sports don’t seem any closer to returning, what other entertainment could fill that same hole? Allow us to humbly suggest a possibility, one just as intelligent about the game of basketball and sparkling with its own variety of star power: the Netflix original film High Flying Bird, which focuses on the drama behind the scenes of an NBA lockout.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar-winning Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird debuted on Netflix early last year, but it has an even greater resonance in quarantine. After all, its characters spend the tight 90-minute runtime figuring out what to do with themselves when their typical avenues of business have been shut down by forces beyond their control. Even André Holland, who stars as charismatic NBA agent Ray Burke, sees the comparison — the actor recently revealed that he's considering making a follow-up movie about what NBA players are doing during quarantine.
Just as COVID-19 has awakened many people to the truth of what is actually essential in day-to-day life and what isn’t, Ray decides that the lockout presents an opening to disrupt the NBA owners’ monopoly on professional basketball — what his old mentor Spencer (Bill Duke) smartly describes as “the game on top of the game.” Ray goads his newest client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) into a pick-up match with a fellow rookie in order to both raise Erick's profile and inspire the possibility of professional basketball being conducted outside the NBA’s purview: Streamed on social media, say, or on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. This makes quite a kick in the pants for slimy NBA team owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), but those who roll their eyes at a passionate defense of Netflix in a Netflix movie should wait until the end when Soderbergh unveils the true extent of Ray’s scheme.
Since the whole movie is built around the absence of professional basketball, it must be said there is not much actual sports to be seen in High Flying Bird. But anyone who’s seen The Last Dance was surely just as captivated by the modern-day talking-head interviews with the likes of Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen as they were by the archival game footage. High Flying Bird actually has its own talking head interviews! Real-life NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, and Reggie Jackson show up in black-and-white interludes answering Soderbergh’s questions about their experiences as rookies. Those add a fun touch of verite to a movie that has always seemed just one small step removed from real life, while the conversations between fictionalized characters bring the drama and poetry.
McCraney’s screenplay can reach profound heights (especially when Ray talks about his first client, who was also his talented younger cousin, and who has since died under mysterious circumstances) but also has plenty of room for fun character bits (such as Spencer’s insistence that anyone who refers to slavery or racial oppression on his basketball court must recite the phrase “I love the Lord and all his black people” as penance). The superb cast, which also includes The Wire alum Sonja Sohn as the beleaguered NBA players’ union representative and Emmy nominee Zazie Beetz as Ray’s protegee trying to make a name for herself in this world of cutthroat cloakrooms, are more than qualified of making such dialogue as entertaining as any physical action.
There has been much discussion since quarantine started about whether one should use this time to work on creative projects, or simply focus on relaxing and ensuring safety. The answer is different for everyone, of course, but those tempted to the creative path can take a lot of artistic inspiration from High Flying Bird, which Soderbergh shot himself entirely through iPhone cameras. Not everyone has the cinematic eye of Soderbergh, of course, but the great thing about the director’s more experimental films like this is how they demonstrate what is possible. A complete, engaging movie can indeed be shot on an iPhone in enclosed settings (offices, dining tables, saunas) not too far removed from the limited physical spaces many people currently find themselves confined within. What other kinds of art might be possible with similarly limited resources…?
But even if filmmaking isn’t your forte, High Flying Bird is inspiring in other ways. The last line, spoken by Beetz, is “you need to read this.” For those viewers gripped by a new interest in the financial machinations, the movie is more than happy to point them towards important books about sports labor disputes from radical black perspectives, such as Harry Edwards' The Revolt of the Black Athlete. There’s more to sports than just sports, after all. There’s a game on top of the game, and right now that upper-level game is the one to watch.