Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is a top-notch New York sports agent that seems to have hit the big time by getting the rights to represent a basketball phenom named Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), only problem is that there’s a lockout and it’s preventing Scott and many other rookies from getting their first NBA paychecks, leaving them unsure of their future. Enter Burke, an ingenious on-the-spot groundbreaker, who decides to push the envelope a bit by trying to bring the players association and owners together with well-constructed set-ups and .. well just watch the movie.
Steven Soderbergh, adaptating a screenplay written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (he wrote the source material for Moonlight) shot “High Flying Bird” with an iPhone and even photographed it as its cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. This is Soderbergh’s second straight film shot on the apple device (after “Unsane”) and it looks great, but there’s a distancing and detached feeling that results in the editing room. The problem is that McCraney’s screenplay is rather unusually conversation-based, a talky delving into the sports business world which feels like it was written by a playwright, because it was.
However, for all the staginess involved, Soderbergh hits high notes with the screenplay’s thematic resonance and its impressive cast of actors. Oh, the acting in this film. Burke’s assistant Sam (Atlanta‘s lovely and amazing Zazie Beetz) knows her boss is up to something and, as she shacks up with Scott, tries to learn her mentor’s ingenious plan as he zigzags his way to finalize the coup d’etat he desires to create. Here’s a clue, the nucleus of Burke’s plan has to do wsith Scott’s twitter feud with future teammate Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) which has., again under Burke’s devising, Jamero’s overprotective mother (Jeryl Prescott) interfering by smack talking his client.
Local basketball coach/neighborhood figurehead Spence (the invaluable Bill Duke) shows up as Burke’s zen-like figure and, oddly enough, the castigator of the whole thing. In a more humorous side detail to his character, Spence forces anyone who “refers to the institution of slavery in front of him, particularly in reference to basketball and its players,” to say the words, ‘I love God and all of his black people.’
Soderbergh even has the idea of infusing his film with several episodic intermissions, which last not more than 30 seconds each, little vignettes, if you will, of players like Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell talking to the camera about the challenges they faced during their respective rookie seasons. A well-intention-ed but momentum-killing un-necessity, and one of the film’s rare faux pas.
It’s all book-ended by dueling Richie Havens songs: the anti-war protest song “Handsome Johnny,” and “High Flying Bird,” which kickstarts the film into the groovy, but slight affair which brims with cultural and political resonance. With this film, Sodebergh and his iPhone only scratch the surface of a tumultuously dangerous idea for the 1%, the notion that power always laid with the people, in this case the players — an obvious ideal which many of us take for granted, but which Soderbergh excitingly implies is a human right. we should never forget. No wonder he decides to shoot it with an iPhone, a clear and concise statement that anybody and everybody can join on on the cinematic revolution as well.
You can claim that the film is over-stuffed with ideas, but the fact that Soderbergh means to start a cultural revolution with a simple iPhone can only imply the revolution has already begun. [B-]