A game of one-on-one with the Almighty Industry: Ray vs. the NBA
High Flying Bird is about NBA rookies, drilled-and-skilled athletes, and the game they play before they even step on the court. It’s not about basketball. For those not fully briefed on the NBA and its politics, this movie might not be for you. My head spun from beginning to end, making me wonder if the movie was just shoddy or I had in fact acquired a hangover.
High Flying Bird is a fast-paced narrative uncovering the NBA’s exploitation of its players and their dedicated fan base. The NBA is portrayed as a white, male-dominated industry with too much money for their limited contribution—at least in comparison to the raw talent they capitalize on.
The film revolves around a clever agent, Ray Burke, whose wit and self-confidence takes us on an unexpected ploy. When his corporate card is declined, Ray has no choice but to take the NBA lockout into his own hands. His motivations aren’t clear at first, but we soon learn that he doesn’t do it for profit or fame, but for the players and his love for the game.
“It’s a monster that I don’t think anyone can prepare for,” says Reggie Jackson in a quick-cut, black-and-white interview. The film jumps to short interviews with recognized rookies, like Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell. Thrown into the plot without clear designation, the interviews feel out of place. The camera is head-on, but the athletes are looking up, probably to portray how they feel when negotiating with the almighty industry. These real-life rookies give us a glimpse into their reality with the NBA.
The interviews chip away at the glamorous façade that fans envision for their favorite athletes. Basketball isn’t the only game they play. They aren’t exactly handed a fat pot of gold the second they sign-on with a team. That’s when their clock starts. And once it starts, it never stops.
Where the storyline and transitions are faulty, the iPhone shots, transitions and Andre Holland’s acting step up to the plate (wrong sport, but you get the reference). The film begins with a heated quarrel between Ray Burke (Andre Holland) and his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). While their character’s personalities were immediately present on the screen, the content they were actually debating flew over my head—like a high flying bird.
The camera then follows Ray Burke as he walks through Manhattan. The screen fills with a long-shot of Ray walking alongside tall warehouses. A bicycle passes him. It builds the dread of how long this walk will be, or rather the hard work to come for the struggling agent.
But at the end of the film Ray boasts, “It only took me 72 hours.” It certainty happened fast, and it felt that way too. The plot followed Ray and his scheming strategy, but just as his own client, co-workers, and friends were left out of his plan, so were we. The film left me like a winded athlete, last to the line, behind the rest of the team. I was just trying to keep up, but I’m no NBA athlete.
Even if the narrative didn’t hold my hand and guide me through the politics and conspiring ploy, the film did accentuate one key message.
“I love the lord and all his black people.”
It’s a line that can’t be overlooked. Drawn from the character Spence (Bill Duke), a community basketball couch in South Bronx, his words weigh heavy with prejudice and injustice. When someone references slavery in Spence’s presence they must follow up with this phrase. This quote infiltrates the dialogue as frequently as prejudice infiltrates the league. More importantly though were those who neglected to say this line in the film. Which key players? Take your guess.