Tarell Alvin McCraney Channeled Athletes’ Dissent to Write High Flying Bird

The Moonlight alum on his new Steven Soderbergh–directed NBA labor drama, sports as a vehicle for connection, and the parallels between athletics and Hollywood

Steven Ferdman / Getty

The climactic basketball game in High Flying Bird, the slick new Netflix drama from the director Steven Soderbergh and the writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, doesn’t play out on any NBA-sanctioned courts. No 360-degree telecasts capture the action, and not a single fan wears officially branded merchandise while cheering in the bleachers. Instead, amid an interminable NBA-wide lockout, two of New York’s most promising young athletes face off in an unlikely venue and attract ire from the league’s executives after unofficial footage of it goes viral. Though the players’ confrontation had been catalyzed by fairly pedestrian masculine acrimony, the social-media broadcasting of their courtside conflict has profound business consequences for the NBA higher-ups who control the players’ futures.

The cheekily self-aware, iPhone-shot film teases out a host of power imbalances in sports without feeling unduly heavy-handed. Soderbergh’s direction is frenetic and dexterous. McCraney’s script deftly balances lofty ambitions of capitalist satire with the human contours of a story driven by distinct personalities. Much of that is owed to the screenwriter’s deep understanding of both his craft and the economic machinations of the sports world.

After initial conversations with Soderbergh and André Holland, who both stars in the film and executive-produced it, McCraney undertook intense research about the demands and restrictions placed on professional athletes. The resulting insights shaped the underlying conflict of High Flying Bird, the league-wide lockout. “[Holland] at some point decided that he was going to create a film about the industry of sport, particularly disenfranchised men, athletes, and their access to just owning their own image,” McCraney said of the film’s origin story when we spoke over the phone last week. “[The players] accept in some cases hefty financial gain, but sometimes lose the ability to advocate. Whatever the political bent of team owners, team players were expected to capitulate toward that vantage point.”

At the center of the hostility between the parsimonious team owners and the frustrated players of High Flying Bird is Ray Burke (Holland), an agent who grows more and more disillusioned with the league’s inflexible protocol. Ray represents Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a rookie whose lockout-stalled contract has left him vulnerable to the whims of executives. As Ray navigates the lockout that’s threatening to end his management career, he receives guidance from Spence (Bill Duke), a sagacious middle-school basketball coach and former NBA player. Together with Ray’s ambitious former assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), and Myra (Sonja Sohn), a Players Association advocate, the two men counsel the wayward Erick and brainstorm methods of circumventing the deeply entrenched inequalities in the profit-driven league.

McCraney, who wrote the play on which the director Barry Jenkins’s 2016 Best Picture–winning Moonlight was based, is a longtime friend of Holland. In contemplating the arc of High Flying Bird, McCraney knew he wanted to focus on both economic stratification and sports’ ability to bring people, particularly men, together. At times, the film’s three central men—Ray, Spence, and Erick—regard one another with adversarial stubbornness. But Spence’s fatherly admonitions of Ray, and Ray’s paternalism in turn toward Erick, stem mainly from concern. “Ray's in the middle of an institution or a system that is asking him to not care, and he’s trying. He’s trying to just shut up and agent or get his players to do what the owners are asking, which is to shut up and dribble,” McCraney said. “And at the same [time], he can’t, because he and Spence, particularly, recognize what the sport means to so many … and how the love of it can heal and come from a place of nurturing rather than obliteration or just competitiveness.”

For McCraney, who grew up in Liberty City, Miami, sports have long been an important arena for forming both interpersonal and community-wide connections. The neighborhood, where Moonlight was set, boasts a staggeringly high rate of professional and collegiate athletes (among them, Jenkins). Though many of these success stories are framed as individual achievements, McCraney is careful to note the importance of athletics as a collective endeavor. “It’s important that young men come to the court not just to show who’s the greatest and who can do the best but to compete and to work out, exercise a lot of the questions and dealings that are happening in the community,” he said. “And that’s what sports has been for communities since time immemorial, since days of antiquity.”

But capitalist enterprises don’t prioritize that kind of connection. In High Flying Bird, the conditions of the NBA lockout are the most obvious threat to the players’ livelihoods, though the league and its expectations had already done their damage, too. The film tenderly weaves in a story about Ray’s cousin, the first player he managed, whose life and career were deeply affected by the toll of maintaining a specific kind of public image. Even in absentia, the athlete influences Ray’s renegade approach to management and league dynamics. The divergence in the two men’s paths is revelatory, and the film uses the athlete’s legacy to critique the dangerously narrow confines of acceptable masculinity without being didactic. It’s a welcome, nuanced narrative choice.

High Flying Bird crackles with the knowledge of its own timeliness. Though the film never directly addresses any recent advocacy in professional football or basketball, it was written not long after the news that Donald Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, had been taped making racist comments, and during the early days of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. “I don’t run away from those parallels, because I think again it just speaks to the fact that black athletes in particular have always had to use their platform and are often told not to,” McCraney said of the recent uptick in the long tradition of athletes’ dissent.

He noted that admonitions against speaking out are also colored by gender: “If black men in basketball think they’ve got it bad with people telling them to just shut up and dribble, what about Serena? Every time she says something and talks about racism and talks about misogynoir and misogyny, people point to the fact that she’s made millions of dollars.”

The racialized restrictions that often accompany financial rewards don’t end with athletics. For the film’s creators, the core tensions of High Flying Bird—how capitalist gatekeeping dampens both creative expression and intra-community connection—dovetail with the systemic barriers that hinder creators of color in the entertainment industry. Among those is a pernicious expectation that even the most accomplished actors, directors, and writers of color should temper their ambitions with a healthy serving of gratitude for having been given a chance. The implication, of course, is that talented and driven artists are lucky to even be in the room.

But just as black athletes (and their communities) support one another amid hostility or suppression from executives, McCraney noted that he’s seen tremendous solidarity among his cohort. He’s particularly effusive when speaking about Holland’s role in High Flying Bird. “It’s … brilliant to watch André sort of self-actualize,” McCraney said. “He’s a brilliant actor but he’s also—if you talk to any of the actors and the crew on the set, he’s just magnanimous and generous in so many ways and has the ability to bring folk together toward a single focus.

“Seeing that in a friend or a person you’ve known for a long time is really exciting because it tells me that there’s more room than what he has been given to do. He had been in a way sort of told to shut up and act, and that he did over many platforms, plays, television shows, films,” McCraney added. “There was a while where you couldn’t stop spotting him behind Person X or talking to Person Y. Now that he’s in the forefront as the leading man, he’s also doing that behind the camera, making sure that folk are able to feel like they’re included and also finding a way to tell stories that are important to him.”

The writer recalled a time when Holland’s commitment to supporting his collaborators extended to McCraney’s vision, too. As McCraney entered the early stages of Moonlight’s filming process, Holland and another close friend, the actor Glenn Davis, helped the writer find a way to envision his newest project: David Makes Man, McCraney’s forthcoming show on OWN. The coming-of-age drama, set in South Florida, follows a young teenager who must choose between his home and the lonely pathway to success laid out for him. The story draws from McCraney’s own life, but the writer credits Holland and Davis with creating the conditions for him to harness inspiration: “They believed in my voice and what I was doing and felt like I was doing a lot but being paid very little. And they just were like, What do you need the most? Do you need us to just write you a check?” McCraney said. “And I was like, No, no, but it would be great to just have some time to look at ideas that are interesting to us.

“And so one of the ideas that came out was for a television show talking about young people who are deemed gifted or talented—and then afforded this opportunity to ‘get out’ and what that kind of experience can do to a person who has to then every day get on a bus and become almost a different person at school and then come home,” he continued, before explaining a core similarity between the OWN series and High Flying Bird: “If you’re rewarded, if you move on to become Eric Holder or the next whoever outside of that community, the system implicates you, [and] you can’t go back and advocate for that community in a lot of ways.”