Netflix movies have been gradually moving up the movie food chain. From the outrage that surrounded Beast of No Nation‘s Oscar snub, to recent awards darling, Roma, scooping up the majority of the awards and nominations at most shows, it’s easy to see that Netflix isn’t a foe to be ignored. Their latest release, High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh of Erin Brockovich fame, and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), it isn’t hard to expect quite a lot from this movie.
It follows Ray, a sports agent, as he navigates an NBA lockout with his rookie client, Erick. With a star-studded cast and a team that is, arguably, overqualified to orchestrate such a simple plot, Netflix looks as though they’re onto a winner.
The movie itself is beautifully written, articulating the struggle of the players and their teams to a T. Granted, it’s likely that this slow pace was intentional: it really emphasises the desperation of the characters as they navigate a world with no work and no money.
High Flying Bird is a really well-made film. The camera work is gorgeous, with stiff, jarring cuts contrasting the lackadaisical script. It’s abrupt in its ferocity, flitting between scenes with the suddenness of a slamming gate. All the while, the screenplay hides how fast the world they live in is moving, jumping about like the cuts between scenes.
As wonderful as the aesthetics of this movie are, it’s impossible to ignore the calibre of the acting, also. André Holland plays the role of smooth-talking Ray, coming across as though he’s been at this gig for years. He’s suave, sharp, and dressed to the nines yet, surprisingly, is tender and sensitive with a memory that plagues him throughout the movie. His characteristics are stacked on top of one another like bricks, and his character is as sturdy as his self-assurance.
Then comes Erick. Played by Melvin Gregg, Erick is a rookie basketball player who is trying, desperately, to get into the league. He’s cocky and wild, but oh-so-talented. Both him and Ray go on a journey of self-discovery throughout the movie, pulling and pushing each other through situations that could make or break their relationship and their career. Their chemistry is noticeable and, despite some unexpectedly robotic deliveries from Gregg, it is sustained throughout the entire movie.
This movie is a really interesting insight into the world of basketball, as well as into the life of black athletes and the people behind them. With an almost entirely black cast, it feels as though it’s an authentic representation of the life the writer has lived, as well as the characters themselves. This raw, palpable feeling hums like a hidden fly in a room, rising and falling in time with their hardships.
The constant condemnation of slavery and all slavery-related phrases adds comedy, but also adds tension, making you consider just how many phrases originate from such a cruel period of history. It ends up becoming a disturbing metaphor for the lock-out itself: basketball players are protesting about the use of human endeavour becoming a commodity for profit. With that in mind, this movie moves immediately from a story about sports to one of social justice.
With this in mind, the tone of this movie shifts dramatically. It becomes a lot darker, with the ending bearing a much more poignant shift in tone. All decisions made seem to be under the power of the white male, despite the fact that the people who made the changes happen to be all people of colour. It highlights the inequality in sport, as well as in Western consumer society. With this in mind, it becomes easy to see just why Soderbergh and McCraney wanted to use sport as the background for their political message: it’s something that crosses all thresholds, and something that unites us all.
If you’re a big fan of basketball, this movie is an interesting take on the game. Despite not actually playing any basketball, it really explores the people behind the greats like Curry and Kobe, and just how hard their job is. It’s easy to dismiss this movie as just another lacklustre sports movie, but it is so much more than that. When you want a hard-hitting watch, this is the one for you.