'Moonlight' Scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney Tackles NBA Exploitation Of Black Athletes In Netflix Film 'High Flying Bird'

February 9th 2019

Written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Best Screenplay, Moonlight) and directed by Steven Soderbergh (entirely on the iPhone) — Netflix’s High Flying Bird is a film about the business of professional basketball, but it’s also a film about race. Exploring themes and elements from Professor Harry Edwards’ 1969 text, The Revolt of the Black AthleteHigh Flying Bird follows Ray Burke (André Holland)—a high powered New York sports agent desperately trying to hold on to his newest client, rookie Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), the NBA’s number one draft pick. A would-be New York Knicks player, Erick’s career and life have come to a standstill due to a 6-month league lockout. That's what happens when the the uber-rich teams' owners and the Players Association, led by Myra (Sonja Sohn), can't come to an agreement.

Major names like Steph Curry and LeBron James (in the real world and in this drama) are virtually unaffected by lockouts—which delay income and training. However, for newcomers like Erick who weren't even being paid at the college level —financial and mental burdens are a very real thing.

Disgusted by the antics of the higher-ups in the organization, Ray and his assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) conceive of a scheme that will put the game back into the players' hands and force the owners to their knees.

Using McCraney’s rich writing and Soderbergh’s lens to shine a light on the history of racial oppression within sports, High Flying Bird illustrates how the love of the game and the sport has often been twisted and used to exploit Black bodies and Black humanity.

Ahead of the film’s debut on Netflix, Shadow and Act sat down to speak with McCraney about the history of this story and why he added his words to the legacy of Black athletic rebellion.

Photo Credit: Netflix Photo Credit: Netflix

"André [Holland] and I have been collaborating since 2006," McCraney explained. "He's been a part of almost everything I've ever done. He happened to be talking to Steven [Soderbergh] about this project, and at some point, it seemed like a good idea to get us all in the room to see how it could move forward. André and Steven had begun a conversation about the Negro League — trying to figure out ways to look at the impact of what players across athletics go through. They stumbled upon The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Dr. Harry Edwards, and decided that they wanted to extend the conversation."

With the idea solidified, McCraney spent the next several years doing a deep-dive into the history of professional athleticism in this country. While writing the script, McCraney began to see how twisted our perspective of the lives of professional athletes is. "In society, we see them as applauded, lauded and paid," he reflected. "We also think that they shouldn't have a political voice or even a say in their own economies. In the film, Ray says, 'We’re just using the money because that's what makes them listen.’ In reality, it's about being able to form and move your own content and make your own stakes. It was really about looking at as many vantage points that were saying many of the same things, and trying to weave them together in a narrative that felt phonetic."

Soderbergh and McCraney also chose to weave in interviews from real-life NBA rookies who shared their perspectives about coming into the league, and all of the pressures and trials that go with it. "I had a friend, Clinton Davis, who put us in contact with former players —players who were in the 2011 NBA lockout. These were players who had become financial advisors —some players had gone broke. I watched a ton of documentaries. André and his producing partner, Maurice Anderson, also connected us to Dr. Edwards and folks who were looking at the sociology of athletes."

As for the idea to add the confessionals into the narrative, McCraney says: "I wish I could take full credit for it but I cannot." McCraney laughed, "Steven came to us and said, 'Look, we're starting production, and it's great—things are going good, and the script is good. We need to make sure that folks know that we didn't make this world up.' So much of this is what we don't see in the newsreels, or the highlight reels of these players lives. Now and then we'll get to see a headline flash, but we rarely get to hear them open up and say, 'The day after draft day is that day you have to get your shit together and go to work.’ They're just like the rest of us. High Flying Bird is a fictional piece, but we created it out of real circumstances. It's sometimes useful to see those real circumstances."

Photo Credit: Netflix Photo Credit: Netflix

With High Flying Bird, McCraney hopes to spark a conversation about the institutions that professional athletes are bound within, but he also realizes that many people—fans, players and otherwise— are content just to let them exist as they are. "We’ve got to look at institutions in this country and what they’re built on," he urged. "Where the money comes from is always bloody in our country. We can’t go back to the root of it without finding traces of it. Some people are very happy for the system, and they roll along the way it's rolling. Those who aren't, what do they do when they recognize that they're part of holding up a system that is controlling or keeping the kind of exclusivity? There's no critique on whether or not that's good or bad. You think you see a united front when you look at all these players, but some folks are like, 'Fam, I've got my contract, and I'm good.' We can't be mad at that either."

Through his research and writing, McCraney did discover that people are working within the system to dismantle it. "There are players, managers, and agents who have fought and tried to execute many of the same things that Ray executes," the playwright revealed. "That was thrilling for me to find out. Players have tried to take their own image and use their celebrity and platform to move or force hands in this way and say, ‘Yo, we don't need your version of how this game should be played, we can make our own version.' In fact, we had a version with the Harlem Globetrotters. Again, I don't think that every player wants that, nor should they. But, I think the fact that there has been folk who've been like, 'Yo, I see a whole other system working,' means that there is a conversation, and a discourse happening there."

High Flying Bird comes to an unsettling conclusion because McCraney doesn't have the answers. "I want the ending to say, 'Look at that and now go out with those questions and see if we can come up with something,'” the Yale School of Drama professor laughed. "What is the conversation after this, and what can we talk about now? I hope now can go, 'What is this system? What does it look like?' Some people are like, 'I like my basketball and my football the way it is.' They want the kneeling and the politics to stop. But again, for those of us who live inside of that duality— who feel like we are a part of an institution that's keeping us in some ways oppressed, it's a good feeling to know that there are some tools in the toolbox that can help dismantle the system."

High Flying Bird premieres on Netflix, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide 

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