On a basketball courtroom, “give me the rock” means “pass the ball.” In “High Flying Bird,” an exhilarating and argumentative caper regarding a sports activities agent, his N.B.A.-rookie shopper and different events, the phrase takes on a barely totally different connotation — one thing akin to “the workers should seize control of the means of production.”
Notwithstanding the presence of three real-life skilled ballers (Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell) giving straight-to-camera testimony about life within the league, this isn’t a sports activities film in any standard sense. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it makes use of the charisma of athletes and the aggressive power of the sport they play to catalyze a feisty, twisty fable of labor and capital within the 21st century.
McCraney, a formidable playwright (his “Choir Boy” is at present on Broadway) and an Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” has composed a densely layered, intellectually demanding agitprop drama that pulls on rabble-rousing theatrical traditions (Clifford Odets, Dario Fo) whereas fixing its gaze squarely on the injustices and absurdities of the current. Soderbergh, taking pictures nearly completely 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 a lot price digging into the political financial system of the film, however extra necessary, on the outset, is to pay tribute to its craft and ingenuity. McCraney’s script is sort of merely a rare piece of writing, idiomatic and poetic in its cadences and pleasingly serpentine in its construction. The problem for Soderbergh and the more-than-game solid is to show the suave verbiage into persuasive human speech and the plot equipment right into a believable slice of natural actuality. Which it’s, serving to down the drugs of topicality with the sugar of pop-culture cleverness in probably the most pleasant means.
The barely distended frames and peculiar angles of the pocket-size digicam — and the best way Soderbergh, serving because the director of images beneath his traditional pseudonym, Peter Andrews, makes it twirl, glide and shimmy — create an environment of buoyancy and immediacy. The actors take it from there, above all André Holland, an govt producer of the movie and the third member of its central artistic group.
Holland (a significant a part of each “Moonlight” and “The Knick,” Soderbergh’s Cinemax sequence) performs Ray Burke, an agent who finds himself in a decent skilled and moral spot. The group house owners have locked out the gamers (as happened in the N.B.A. back in 2011), and the cash that retains all people afloat is shortly drying up.
In the primary scene, Ray is lecturing his shopper Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a current No. 1 draft choose whose skilled debut has been postponed, about monetary accountability and private self-discipline. It’s a big-brotherly scolding and a pep speak, but in addition the beginnings of a ruthless critique of the best way the system works, exploiting naïve and impressive younger males like Erick even because it guarantees them fame and fortune.
That concept — that despite excessive salaries and endorsement offers, athletes are basically employees, producing income for the proudly owning class — is refined and sophisticated as Ray pinballs from one assembly to the subsequent. He checks in on the workplace together with his boss (Zachary Quinto), engages in energetic screwball banter together with his erstwhile assistant, Samantha (Zazie Beetz) and argues dialectics and family-leave coverage with Myra (Sonja Sohn), the top of the participant’s affiliation.
Other encounters — with a no-nonsense sports activities mother (Jeryl Prescott), the proprietor of Erick’s group (Kyle MacLachlan) and Ray’s outdated good friend Spence (Bill Duke), who runs a youth basketball program — comply with the identical didactic, disputatious sample. There’s a good quantity of soliloquizing and rhetorical grandstanding, which can also be true of Shakespeare, hip-hop and church. If you like several of these, you may get pleasure from this too.
In the course of all of the back-and-forthing, a scheme emerges that strikes Ray as splendidly easy and probably revolutionary. What if the gamers, paralyzed by the intransigence of their employers, may get rid of these middlemen and take management of the fruits of their very own abilities? It’s a query that resonates past the courtroom, the locker room and the printed sales space, into the worlds of artwork and leisure. The racial facets of the facility dynamic that governs organized sports activities is so apparent that it nearly goes with out saying. Whenever anybody does say it — when, that’s, anyone invokes slavery as a metaphor for present circumstances — Spence calls for the recitation of a brief prayer: “I love the lord and all his black people.” If there may be resignation in these phrases, there may be defiance too.
“High Flying Bird” swoops and cuts via the contradictions of recent tradition with the fleet momentum of an influence ahead destroying a flat-footed protection on his method to the ring. You don’t fairly perceive what simply occurred till the subsequent factor is already taking place. The mental virtuosity on show is one way or the other each ostentatious and informal. The performances — Holland’s specifically, stuffed with unhappiness, guile and audacity — really feel the identical means.
Not all the pieces works. A again story having to do with Ray’s cousin, a basketball prodigy who met a tragic finish, feels just like the type of baggage extra suited to the stage than the display screen. At moments the busyness of the plot overshadows the wit of the performances. But the occasional raggedness of the film solely enhances the credibility of its ambitions. Like Ray Burke, it’s in a giant hurry and has quite a bit on its thoughts.
And it leaves you with quite a bit to consider, along with race, class and basketball: what it means to like your work, and why it issues to be paid for it; how utopian visions and tactical calculations work collectively to create the opportunity of change; why we take enjoyable so severely. It ends not with a giant recreation or a high-stakes showdown however with a protest anthem — by Richie Havens, who additionally wrote the track that gives the film its name — and a suggestion for additional studying. Which I’m not about to spoil.