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Change How the Game is Played: On the Power of Labor and the Timeliness of High Flying Bird

Glance through Steven Soderbergh’s filmography, and a portrait begins to fill in of a man discouraged, disgusted, and dissatisfied by nearly all of our trusted institutions. With corporations who cover up killing us in “Erin Brockovich.” With the brutality and senselessness of the War on Drugs in “Traffic.” With the mainstream Western media’s incomplete portrayal of a revolutionary figure like Che Guevara in the two-part biopic “Che”. With the monetization of the health care industry in “Contagion” and “Side Effects.” With the hypocritical ruthlessness of private security contractors in “Haywire.” With the forgotten everyday struggle of the working class in “Logan Lucky.” With the sleaze of global financiers and investors in “The Laundromat.” Even films like the “Ocean’s” trilogy and his Elmore Leonard adaptation “Out of Sight” are firmly on the side of David as he stands against Goliath, or Robin Hood as he outsmarts the Sheriff of Nottingham. Practically as a policy, Soderbergh sympathizes with the underdogs facing off against foes with more money, more connections, and more influence, and the way of the world is that those three things almost always go together.  

As a cinematic Renaissance man who directs, writes, and edits, Soderbergh has consistently been laser-sharp at laying bare the corrupting nature of power and criticizing the entrenched injustice that inevitably occurs as a result. When Soderbergh teamed up with playwright and “Moonlight” Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney for 2019’s “High Flying Bird,” a film about a labor dispute between NBA players and NBA team owners, together the pair made one of the sharpest, most uncompromising films for the current moment. Relevant last year but especially timely now, the film’s depiction of an imbalanced system between the predominantly Black players in the NBA and the nearly universally white team owners feels prescient given our current headlines.

The police shooting and paralysis of 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2020, added further fuel to widespread protests that have remained steady all year in response to the continued killing of Black people by law enforcement. (123 Black people have been killed by police so far this year, according to The Washington Post’s police shootings database.) The subsequent killing of two protestors in Kenosha by alleged gunman Kyle Rittenhouse on August 25, and the released video footage that seems to show police letting the 17-year-old white man just walk away from the scene of the crime, has led to fierce outcry. From the world of professional sports, the response has been one of fury, exhaustion, and wariness—particularly from players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Of players in the 2019-2020 season, 83.1% are people of color, including 74.2% of players who are Black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Police brutality disproportionately affecting these communities is a national issue by which we should all be enraged.

NBA players led by the Milwaukee Bucks broke their own NBA collective bargaining agreement and refused to take part in playoff games on August 26th as a means of protesting the continued omnipresence and dire effects of racial injustice. John Wall, of the Washington Wizards, spoke directly to critics like Laura Ingraham with an August 26 tweet declaring “We will no longer shut up and dribble.” (Playoff games will continue on August 29th after a 3-day strike.) The NBA referees’ organization posted a statement of solidarity on Twitter, naming specifically the “protest of the continued unjustified killing of black men and women by law enforcement,” and athletes in myriad leagues—the Women's National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer—followed suit in refusing to play and postponing games as a result. Individuals, too, stood up: The former No. 1 ranked female tennis player in the world, Naomi Osaka, announced that she was withdrawing from her August 27 semifinals match at the 2020 Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. In her Twitter statement, Osaka wrote, “[B]efore I am an athlete, I am a black woman. … I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.” Osaka played in the rescheduled match on August 28, after reiterating in a later statement her stance against “racial injustice and continued police violence.” 

Numerous journalists and media outlets, in describing this movement that spread throughout the professional sports world, mislabeled it, calling it a boycott. SAV Management agent Ray Burke, played with verve and slyness in “High Flying Bird” by André Holland, would know the appropriate term for it: This type of collective action is a strike, a refusal of labor in the pursuit of attention, action, and justice. Boycotts are about withholding one’s money; strikes are about withholding one’s body. It is the exact tool Burke is using throughout “High Flying Bird” to try and craft a more-equitable power structure for the players he represents, and to see this wave of camaraderie, Burke would say, “Good.” And then, with that half-smile that Holland does so well, he would add in a whisper, “Keep going.”

“You’re on the side of the players.”—David Starr

“I rep players. Who else’s side?”—Ray Burke

“High Flying Bird” begins during a lunch appointment in a fancy restaurant, its wall-to-wall windows providing wraparound views of the New York City skyline, and Soderbergh and McCraney work swiftly to set the stage and introduce its players. Seated across from each other are Burke, with the grace of a well-balanced knife and the practiced poise of a man used to wearing designer suits, and his client, NBA rookie Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). (The film is also dotted throughout with interviews with NBA players, including Reggie Jackson of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, and Karl Anthony-Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, about their rookie-year experiences.) After signing to an unnamed New York City team as the No. 1 NBA Draft pick, Erick has sat on the sidelines for months during a prolonged contract negotiation between the league and the team owners on one side and the players association union on the other. The players aren’t asking for much—a slightly higher percentage of earnings, and slightly more control of their public images—but the owners aren’t budging. While the opposing sides remain at an impasse, no one is making money, and it’s rookies like Erick (coming into the league with barely any savings), backup and bench players (those who Ray calls “check-to-check” men, the guys without huge deals), and agents like Ray (who is cutting into his reserves to stay afloat) who are feeling the effects the most.

For the (mostly) white billionaires in “High Flying Bird” who own the teams, who fly in private jets, and who can wait the struggle out, the strike isn’t really an issue. They have the money to keep going, and the vast majority of the players don’t. (The combined net worth of NBA team owners is in the hundreds of billions; of the majority team owners, only three are people of color.) This sort of mobilization has happened before, and it will happen again, and eventually the players will fold. Team owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan) is used to the routine, and practically laughs in the face of association representative Myra (Sonja Sohn) when she points out that the owners haven’t been negotiating with the players in good faith. “The owners, well, they don’t give a fuck. Half of them won’t even show,” she had told Ray earlier, and she’s proved right. Men like Seton still describe the NBA players on their teams as “boys,” and their wealth and privilege is a cocoon that is practically impenetrable by legal means.

So it goes, then, that someone standing up to those players has to act illegally, and scene by scene, Ray’s grand plan is revealed. At that lunch with Erick, he soothes his money troubles, gives him a mysterious gift—a book that Ray calls “a Bible,” which Erick will know to open at some point in the future—and promises to keep representing him. Back at the office at SAV Management, Ray assuages his boss, the harried David Starr (Zachary Quinto), who is aghast to learn that Ray is floating his clients his own money from a separate savings account he set up for rainy days like these. With no NBA cash flow into SAV for the 6-month entirety of the ongoing lockout, Ray’s assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), has been reassigned, but she—like Myra—senses that Ray is up to something. “I’d like to do my job,” Ray says, but his understanding of those responsibilities vs. Starr’s are very different. In fact, they might not align at all.

“They wanted the control of a game that we play, that we play better. They invented a game, on top of a game.”—Spence

The NBA now is the most diverse men's sports league in the country, and has long led the way in racial and gender hiring practices, according to the 2020 report from the The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Like everything in America, though, the first decades of professional basketball were segregated. With the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America both banning Black players, the country’s best Black talent instead played for teams like the Harlem Globetrotters. The popularity of the team grew steadily and then exploded after the Globetrotters’ buzzer-beater win against the all-white Minneapolis Lakers in 1948; The Chicago Defender, the city’s Black newspaper, said of the victory, “No story book game could have had a better finish.” Team owners took notice. There was money to be made through integration. One year later, in 1949, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League would merge to form the National Basketball Association. A year after that, Black players Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd were drafted to the Boston Celtics and the Washington Capitals, respectively, and the league began to change, expanding over the decades to include more players of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds.

In his book Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, author Nelson George followed in the footsteps of playwright August Wilson and spoke of “a particular—and shared—African-American aesthetic” that developed outside of what had been the whites-only leagues. It was that style that transformed professional basketball after integration: the slam dunk as a means of physical intimidation, the importance of improvisation on the court, the fluidity of street-ball techniques. “There’s no question that certain African-Americans execute their court magic with a funky attitude akin to that of the race’s greatest musicians … This Black aesthetic has not only changed basketball but … has been the catalytic force behind the sport's extraordinary growth in popularity and profitability ever since,” George wrote. His argument that the modern incarnation of the sport owes a great debt to the Black community—a debt that has not been fully paid—aligns with the viewpoint passed down to Ray by his former coach, mentor, and ally Spence (Bill Duke) in “High Flying Bird.”

A fixture in the youth-basketball circuit on the East Coast, with a program at the South Bronx Community Gym that many of the country’s most-promising teen players pass through, Spence has been trying to shape adolescent minds for a long time. He bans the use of any slavery-related vernacular, metaphors, or analogies on his court or in his presence. If someone slips up, mentioning something like “cracking the whip” or “I own you,” he forces them to recite the words “I love the Lord and all his Black people.” (The rule applies to himself, too: When Spence disparagingly calls the NBA Draft a “modern-day slave auction,” Ray’s knowing look is a nudge for Spence to, in resigned deadpan, recite his own mantra.) Spence was involved with the Harlem Globetrotters decades ago and saw how teams and a league organized and maintained by the Black community had certain priorities the NBA does not. The institution that Black people built for themselves was swallowed up by a larger capitalist enterprise that mostly left them behind, and Spence is blunt in his regret: “We gave that up for money.” Prior to that, though, “We made decisions based on what we needed,” Spence tells Ray of the Black Fives Era before integration. “The whole game grew based on our hunger, our hunger for it.”

Could that hunger, Ray wonders, be enough to upend the entire NBA as the owners, coaches, and players know it? Could it be enough to dismantle the owners’ “game on top of a game”—how they underpay most players, control nearly every aspect of their public images, retain broadcast rights, and pocket money from TV and sponsorship deals? If audience demand was high enough to just watch players play, even in the midst of a lockout, could Ray prove that the top-down structure of the NBA is functionally irrelevant? It’s worth a try, and “High Flying Bird” follows Ray as he navigates rivalries between players—like between Erick and another hotshot young player, his nemesis Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley)—in pursuit of something greater. Spence is the only person in “High Flying Bird” who seems to have an idea of what Ray is planning, of how Ray wants to maneuver the players, the players association, the owners, and the media all against each other in an attempt to do what’s best for the hundreds of young Black men caught up in the game, and he encourages it. “You care all the way, or you don’t care at all,” they agree, and the 50/50 split the owners are suggesting to the players—when the former are so few and the latter are so many—will not stand. When you want to dismantle the system, someone has to throw the first brick.

“You think these fools, these rich white dudes, are gonna let the sexiest sport fall by the wayside? Football is fun, but it don’t sell sneakers. In order to move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services. Too much money at stake.”—Ray Burke

In a capitalist system, the only way to demand change from above—the only way to generate any kind of notice—is to threaten that very capital. When Ray learns that the owners are holding out on making a deal with the players because they’re engineering new contracts with TV networks for more cash, he thinks of a way of cutting out the middle men. Video of a one-on-one game between Erick and Jamero at Spence’s annual Back Court Day event in the Bronx leaks online; the clip ends before revealing who won, fueling media curiosity and gathering 24 million views. Other match-ups start popping up around the country, with ticket costs ratcheting upward into the thousands of dollars. On the one hand, the players could be violating their contracts by playing in these games during the lockout. But on the other hand, if they don’t demonstrate their worth by breaking those very contracts, and forcing the owners’ hands, could anything ever change? Fan interest is reaching a frenzy, and the potential of these games (explosively popular by the very nature of their exclusivity, and with proceeds going directly into players’ pockets) finally spurs Seton and his ilk into action. “You know what I hate about this? It’s exactly what I’d do,” says Glenn Fleshler, appearing in a cameo as one of Seton’s fellow owners, and that admission—that Ray knows exactly how the owners think, and can manipulate them as a result—is the first sign that their glass mansion might have a broken window or two.

There is a certain poetic scrappiness to the fact that Soderbergh shot “High Flying Bird,” about an individualistic striver going against the mainstream establishment, not with a full film crew but by himself, using an iPhone 8. As the film progresses, the camera’s gaze moves from scenes showing Ray’s smallness compared with his surroundings—one man walking countless blocks through New York City, a scant figure compared with endless construction sites and crews, crowds of tourists, busy parking garages, and packed office buildings—to compositions that highlight his singularity. He stands alone at a podium to explain to rabid media members the face-off between Erick and Jamero; he plays a casual game of one on one against Spence while explaining his next move, the camera remaining still so we can follow the arc of his free throw; he faces off against Seton in a humid sauna, his face illuminated by the bleary red light of the room. Eventually, Ray threatens to transcend his surroundings: Soderbergh makes his presence so unignorable and Holland’s performance of McCraney’s prose is so precise that you can barely look away.

“I see old white men and young hoteps trying to rise up off my baby, same play,” Jamero’s mother Emera (Jeryl Prescott) had told Ray when she dismissed him from a meeting about representing her son, but what she didn’t anticipate was Ray’s long con—the way his plan would unfurl in an almost Machiavellian way. In a classic Soderbergh move, the narrative shifts backward 48 hours, then moves forward another 24 hours, to capture nearly every piece of Ray’s plan falling into its intended place. To reign in the possibility of outside-league games, the owners return to negotiations, with Seton’s embarrassing “I had a real ‘come to Jesus moment’ with this whole thing” and his appeal to Myra that “I need us to be one big family again.” With leverage on her side, Myra is able to work out a better deal for the union. The drama at Back Court Day draws attention to Spence’s program, potentially bringing in more young players and more funding. Ray outplays Starr, using his role in ending the lockout to take over Starr’s job (Holland’s smirk when he tells his former boss “You’re sitting in my seat” is one of the film’s most satisfying moments). It all seems about perfect, until Ray is abandoned by Sam, who leaves SAV to work with Myra at the players association, and Erick, who fires him after feeling used by Ray in his lockout-ending scheme.

“He’s no visionary … no revolutionary. He ain’t a game changer. He’s just happy to be playing the game,” Ray had said of Erick, but in this moment, we understand that Ray had underestimated his own client—had mistaken advocacy and protection for control and coercion. In their final meeting, Ray’s parting words to Erick speak to the larger confining system he thought he was breaking apart for the younger man, and for other players like him. “Don’t let them fool you all your life,” he says, and Ray’s raised fist, a parting gesture as protest, is a promise.

“It was inevitable that this revolt should develop. … The revolt was as inevitable as the rising of the sun.”—Harry Edwards

The history of America is soaked with blood spilled as a result of racism, prejudice, oppression, and hatred, and even in those terms, 1968 was a nightmare. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee; two months later, on June 6, Robert Kennedy Jr. (who gave an impromptu eulogy for King at a campaign spot in Indianapolis the night of the iconic civil rights leader’s death) was assassinated in Los Angeles. How to obtain justice from the institutions that fail us? How to draw attention to the continued subjugation of Black people in America, and around the world?

At the Summer Olympics in October 1968 in Mexico City, after the 200-m race, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked up to the awards podium, took their spots at first and third place, respectively, and waited until “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play before raising their fists in the air. In The Revolt of the Black Athlete, author, civil rights activist, and sociologist Harry Edwards, who helped plan this climactic moment, recounts Smith’s explanation of the protest:

“‘I wore a black right-hand glove and Carlos wore the left-hand glove of the same pair. My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’ raised left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity.’ Smith later confided to me that the gesture of the bowed head was in remembrance of the fallen warriors in the black liberation struggle in America—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.”

That moment of defiance, in which Smith and Carlos dared to stand up for Black lives, had an immediate effect. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned of “severe” penalties for other political protests in Mexico City, and IOC President Avery Brundage expelled Smith and Carlos from the games. Their act of protest was described by the IOC as “deliberate and violent,” and yet over time, Smith and Carlos’s choice has been recognized as one of immense bravery. Their raised fists have reverberated through the decades as an act of intentional and thoughtful political action and remarkable strength and remain a galvanizing image for Black Americans and Americans of color.

In June 2020, Carlos signed a letter to the IOC requesting that the ban against protests at the Olympics be overturned. The personal has always been political, and to pretend otherwise is to uphold what has always been an inequal status quo—an idea that McCraney supports with the final two scenes of “High Flying Bird.” In Ray’s last moments onscreen, we see him receive a visitor: Edwards himself, whom Ray embraces with obvious fondness. And in the next scene, we see Sam (who has been dating Erick) open Ray’s gift to him from the film’s opening while Erick takes a shower. The present was Edwards’s The Revolt of the Black Athlete, and Sam is enthralled. When Erick asks her, in a hushed tone, “What’s that?”, Sam’s answer is definitive: “You need to read this.” This was the “Bible” Ray was talking about, and this was the fist that Ray raised in the air: a reminder of where Black resistance has already gone, and where it still needs to go.

To read The Revolt of the Black Athlete is to better understand the intersections between this country’s civil rights and labor movements, and to begin to formulate methodologies for how these overlaps can continue to inform each other. So many of Edwards’s statements in his text are distilled into the character of Spence in “High Flying Bird,” and they come from a place of understandable frustration and undeniable wisdom. “All professional athletes—black and white—are officially and formally classified as property. They exist to make money for the club owners. But here the similarities between black and white professionals cease. Racism and discrimination are the exclusive lot of the black professional,” Edwards writes. More than 50 years after The Revolt of the Black Athlete was published in 1969, it is deeply demoralizing to consider this country’s still pervasive racism, the flaws in its reliance on a police state to defend its capitalist interests, and the ways in which its leaders continue to fail us.

Within the frame of The Revolt of the Black Athlete, “High Flying Bird” takes on greater poignancy. And against the backdrop of one of the largest instances of collective action in the NBA’s history in support of a social movement that directly impacts the majority of its players, the film also radiates a specific and timely urgency. The film’s fusion of Soderbergh’s populist ideology and McCraney’s crackling script makes clear our need to reconsider the relationship between professional athletes and the teams that employ them, and to expand that idea outward. To which institutions and to whom do we gift our trust and provide our labor, and what would embolden us enough to demand it back? “High Flying Bird” distills the frustrations of workers, basketball players and otherwise, whose voices have been alternately stifled, commodified, or ignored for decades, and the film’s effective influence is its impassioned call not only for us to listen but to raise our voices too.  

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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