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.