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COURT RULES

Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 90 minutes 4 seconds. Ray Burke (André Holland).

SOME MOVIES tunnel into your emotions, some into your kinetic center, and some make you feel like your mind is on fire. The last are as pleasurable to think about after the fact as they are to watch. That High Flying Bird (2019), a movie about an NBA basketball lockout, is heady rather than kinetic is a surprise. Then again, maybe not, considering that its director is Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who gravitates toward puzzles and mindfucks but doesn’t always have scripts strong enough to sustain his vision. Here, he’s working with an exceptional writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, who coauthored the Barry Jenkins–directed Moonlight (2016). When screenplays are as psychologically rich and dexterously constructed as McCraney’s, you have to think twice about assigning total creative ownership to the films’ directors.

Still, I can’t think of anyone better suited than Soderbergh to make a film in which the actors trade quips as fast and easily as the Golden State Warriors passed the ball in 2015, while every now and then revealing a subtext that’s all about power and its manipulation at a moment when that power’s infrastructure has come unglued. High Flying Bird is set in New York during an extended NBA shutdown that is threatening the careers of many players—stars excepted—and a support system that includes one canny agent, Ray Burke (André Holland, as compelling here as he was playing the racial-barrier-breaking surgeon in Soderbergh’s The Knick [2014–15] and the diner chef who gives us a reason to believe that love might conquer all in Moonlight). Ray is working on behalf of his rookie client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who’s already in debt to loan sharks, but he also has a bigger goal: to wrest a bit of control from the owners and erode their power long-term. Like the greatest basketball players, he has the ability to see the whole court in the moment and thus to anticipate everyone’s next move.

Like the greatest basketball players, Ray Burke has the ability to see the whole court in the moment and thus to anticipate everyone’s next move.

Visually minimalist, High Flying Bird depicts a deal-driven Manhattan as a construct of vertical rectangles: the tall windows that frame the interiors of offices, restaurants, and apartments in high-rise buildings; the buildings themselves that line the streets. Soderbergh’s camera placement is matter-of-fact—no flamboyant angles embellish this cityscape. The drama derives from one-on-ones between Ray and a series of potential allies or opponents. Among the latter: the head of the sports division of a Creative Artists–like business (Zachary Quinto) and one of the league’s owners (an extravagantly sleazy Kyle MacLachlan). The former are more multidimensional, and include Myra (Sonja Sohn), the chief negotiator for the players association; Samantha (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s former assistant, who has her eyes on Myra’s position and on Erick as well; and, most crucially, Ray’s guru Spence Jones (Bill Duke), long retired from pro basketball and now coaching South Bronx teenagers after school. It’s Spence who reminds Ray (and us) that the NBA built a game on top of a game, meaning that white businesspeople took over when they recognized the Harlem Globetrotters’ appeal, and, because they liked the money, the players didn’t resist. This is complicated, because Spence forbids any allusion to slavery in his presence. The goal is to free the game beneath the game. Without giving too much away, I can say that Ray ingeniously uses the TV networks’ diminishing power in the face of alternatives like YouTube and Netflix to show the owners that the players have other options.

Soderbergh has famously struggled within, and insisted on working outside of, the studio system. High Flying Bird, like his prior feature, Unsane (2018), was shot largely on a couple of iPhones, and took roughly a month to complete for Netflix, which snapped up worldwide distribution rights and is continuing its partnership with the director, financing and releasing his next and much bigger picture, The Laundromat, based on the Panama Papers investigation. For the moment, Netflix is letting some of the talent play freely, or at least more freely than Hollywood allows. High Flying Bird is reflexive, a movie about basketball that is also about its own making. In addition, it’s a promo for a book that’s as revelatory today as it was when it was first published in 1968: The Revolt of the Black Athlete, by Harry Edwards—a civil rights activist, scholar, and former college athlete—which acts as the movie’s “Rosebud.” Buy the book, reprinted last fall by the University of Illinois Press with a new introduction and afterword, then see the movie on Netflix, beginning February 8. Almost certainly, it will not be in a theater near you.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.