“High Flying Bird” is a slam dunk


By: Tessa Jillson

In the opening scene of the Netflix original film, “High Flying Bird,” Ray Burke (André Holland), a sports agent whose career is on the line during an NBA lockout, advises his client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a number-one draft pick trying to make his league debut, about a high-interest loan Scott can’t pay back. 

Under pressure and irritated by Burke’s consistent reproach, Scott eventually asks Burke to “stop low-key stupiding” him. Burke responds with, “When I’m hungry, I get mean.”

Throughout the film, we see Burke “hungry” to change the league, finding loopholes to end the lockout and asking questions about race, class, and social justice, leading you to ask by the end of the movie: who owns the NBA or who ought to – the players or white power brokers?

The movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) is a dense, fast-paced film – more political than sports oriented. Soderbergh is said to have only used an iPhone, a wheelchair, a 6-inch stabilizer, and a filmic pro app to shoot the film, according to IndieWire.

Released on Feb. 8, “High Flying Bird” features an array of acclaimed cast members, including Holland, Gregg, Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, and Bill Duke, plus appearances from NBA athletes Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell, who were interviewed throughout the movie about the challenges they faced as rookies.

The film is intentionally loaded with references from NBA history, including past lockouts, such as the 2011 lockout, characters who resemble NBA historical figures, such as Michele Roberts, and the politics of the association that have been prevalent in basketball since the past segregation of black players from white pro-basketball leagues.

According to The New York Times, black basketball players formed semi-pro leagues, such as the Harlem Globetrotters. It wasn’t until 1950, when the NBA officially formed, that black players were allowed to even enter the league.

As Spencer, Duke’s character, says in the movie, “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters exhibitions started going international – control. They wanted the control of a game that we played, and we played better.”

The soundtrack of the film features two folk-rock classics by Richie Havens, “High Flying Bird” and “Handsome Johnny.” The former song, the title of the film, juxtaposes the freedom of a bird to the singer’s misery and limited opportunity, much as Burke sees his clients constrained by the league. Haven’s song “Handsome Johnny,” tells the story of a man marching off to war, and ends the film with the retrospective view that there’s is still a lot of hard work to be done in the NBA.