Soderbergh’s Compelling ‘High Flying Bird’ Explores Power Dynamics and Politics in the NBA

Steven Soderbergh teams up with Tarell Alvin McCraney, the scribe behind the play that was the basis for “Moonlight,” for “High Flying Bird,” a Netflix original drama that explores the business side of professional basketball, as well as power dynamics and race. André Holland stars as Ray Burke, a New York-based sports agent who finds himself in a difficult spot in the middle of a NBA lockout. Not only has his boss (Zachary Quinto) suspended his salary, his dependable assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), has moved on. Now, he’s on a mission to do his part in bringing an end to this stalemate between players and management.

Although “High Flying Bird” is miles away from “Jerry Maguire” in tone, one cannot help but find comparisons with this film and that gold standard of sports business films. Like Maguire, Ray values having more personalized relationships with his clients, preferring to work with rookies over star players. He’s currently invested in Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a No. 1 draft pick from the Bronx. Ray sets the young man straight after he fails to properly manage his finances. Not that these athletes are portrayed as spoiled or empty-headed. Ray is very understanding, as he makes clear that years of intense basketball training has left little time for players to be taught how to look out for their best interests when it comes to money, something money-hungry owners use to their advantage, treating their players like commodities. Many parallels are found here between slavery and the NBA, an institution in which there is an imbalance of power between the the mostly white owners and power players and the predominately African-American players. Kyle MacLachlan is perfectly cast as a representative of the former.

The plot is interlaced with interviews from real-life NBA players, a Greek chorus of sorts, and the one that sticks out the most has to do with social media. In the world of Twitter and video phones, work never ends for high-profile people; they must always be alert. This is something Ray learns to use to his advantage by orchestrating a feud between Erick and a rival teammate, Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), in an effort to “activate” the former. The ever-loyal Sam helps Ray out in all this, and she’s not the only woman who holds her own here. Sonja Sohn gives a stellar performance as Myra, a player rep who gets flack for wanting to start a family with her female partner. There’s also Mrs. Jamero (Jeryl Prescott), a “momanger” who proves to be a force to be reckoned with.

As “High Flying Bird” was written by a playwright, it should come as no surprise that the dialogue is very theatrical, almost Shakespearean at times. Ray is a compelling character, holding his cards close to his chest, playing the part of a puppet master of sorts. Keeping him grounded is Spencer (Bill Duke), a Bronx youth basketball coach and former player who masterfully plays the wise old man. There’s also a backstory involving Ray and his first client, his cousin, a star player who died under tragic circumstances, although it’s never fully fleshed out.

Just as he did with “Unsane,” Soderbergh shot “High Flying Bird” entirely on an iPhone, and the result is some great shots that makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall. A notable example of this is when Ray and Myra are conversing at an upscale bar and the camera peers through the small glasses containing the cherries, limes and lemons.

High Flying Bird” Feb. 8 on Netflix.