Thirteen Ways of Looking at “High Flying Bird”

I) WE HAVE BEEN TOLD that Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, High Flying Bird, is about the class struggle. A. O. Scott of The New York Times characterized its story — about a basketball agent’s efforts to end a months-long lockout — as “a feisty, twisty fable of labor and capital in the 21st century.” The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd observed that the film is ultimately about “imagining a possible future without owners.” Writing in New York Magazine, Will Leitch called it “the most radical sports film I’ve ever seen,” one that captures “the spirit of revolution that’s in the air.”

But if High Flying Bird is about the class struggle, it doesn’t show us that struggle. In fact, the film’s true subject might just be why it is unable to show us the class struggle.

II) The most obvious thing that High Flying Bird doesn’t show us, though, is basketball. As many critics have observed, it is a basketball movie that withholds all but the most fleeting glimpses of the sport itself. In this way, it is similar to one of Soderbergh’s other recent works, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), a film about a sex worker that elides any depiction of sexual activity. In its place, The Girlfriend Experience offers a series of conversations in which one or both parties are acting instrumentally, sometimes overtly (as one character tries to sell a good or service to another), sometimes covertly (as in the affective labor of the sex work practice named in the film’s title: paid companionship that simulates the emotional intimacy of romantic partnership). Filmed during and set amid the 2008 financial crisis, The Girlfriend Experience is peopled with characters whose relentless and anxious entrepreneurialism saturates their being; they are neoliberal avatars of Homo economicus. The visual withholding of the principal activity at hand — in The Girlfriend Experience and, as we’ll see, in High Flying Bird — thus directs our attention to the economic logic that structures it: it points us toward what Bird’s community basketball coach Spence (Bill Duke) calls “a game on top of a game.”

III) But how to depict the game on top of the game? Finding an appropriate way to visualize the dynamics of capitalism has been a representational issue ever since Marx invited us to descend into the hidden abode of production. Given Hollywood cinema’s reliance on formal realism and individual-oriented dramas, one could imagine a strategy akin to that outlined by the great Marxist theorist of realism, Georg Lukács. The realist text, according to Lukács, should “penetrate the laws governing objective reality […] to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society.” In doing so, the realist text must depict “the surface of life” as “sufficiently transparent to allow the underlying essence to shine through (something which is not true of immediate experience in real life)” so that the motive forces of history become manifest “as immediacy, as life as it actually appears.” This project of visualizing the not-immediately-perceptible is facilitated by selecting “a central figure in whose life all the important extremes in the world of the [text] converge and around whom a complete world with all its vital contradictions can be organized.”

IV) Ray Burke (André Holland) is an apt choice for such a figure. Ray is High Flying Bird’s sports agent protagonist, who spends the film mediating between labor (embodied in his star recruit client, Erick Scott [Melvin Gregg]), the Players Association union (led by chief negotiator Myra [Sonja Sohn]), and capital (the team owners, chiefly David Seton [Kyle MacLachlan]). Ray not only has a privileged vantage point onto the class antagonisms that structure this particular workplace; he is also especially gifted, we are told, at perceiving what others cannot. “He can see the business,” Myra tells Ray’s former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz). “He’s a few steps ahead.” It is Ray, then, who conceives of the scheme to thwart the owners’ plan to leverage the lockout — which makes the players more desperate to settle on unfavorable terms the longer it goes on — in order to land a better deal with the television networks. Ray orchestrates a one-on-one game at a charity event between Erick and his teammate/rival Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), which is filmed by the kids at the event and quickly goes viral; Ray then uses the online excitement to stage the possibility of future informal matches with idled star players while various internet-based platforms offer to livestream said matches. All of this is done, Ray tells Spence, “to put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball, instead of those up in the skybox.”

V) But just as the film denies us visual access to the viral video that catalyzes these events — we see only about seven seconds of actual play between Erick and Jamero — it also keeps a good deal of Ray’s clever machinations off-screen until the film’s final 20 minutes, where they are unveiled retrospectively. This, too, is a Soderberghian trope: Ocean’s Eleven (2001) shows us part of the casino heist as it is underway, but only reveals many of its twists and fake-outs in narrative flashbacks after the scheme has been successful. The effect in High Flying Bird, though, is a curious one. For a film about class conflict between two collective antagonists — the hundreds of players on one side, the owners operating via thinly veiled collusion on the other — there are no heroically cinematic images of these collectives facing off against each other; hell, we never even see either of these groups as a collective. Instead, what we watch, for the most part, is a series of conversations, often located in high-end restaurants and offices, between individuals who are, in the main, seeking instrumental advantage over their interlocutor. In other words, High Flying Bird’s potentially Lukácsian dramatization of class struggle remains trapped, visually and narratively, in the neoliberal perceptual apparatus we encountered in The Girlfriend Experience.

VI) The anti-Lukácsian consequences of this strategy are heightened by Soderbergh’s much-publicized use of iPhones to shoot High Flying Bird. It is by now a cliché to observe that the selfie, the primary genre of visual culture birthed by camera-phone technology, presents a pictorial analogue for neoliberal selfhood. Focused on an individual whose prominence in the foreground serves to disembed them phenomenologcally from the ever-changing contexts in which they appear, the selfie depicts a supremely mobile subject unencumbered by any constraints of the social world other than those “freely” chosen. Soderbergh’s iPhone cameras, fitted with anamorphic lenses to achieve a wide-screen, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, generate a similar ideological effect: the slight yet noticeable fish-eye perspective causes the character in the foreground to appear somewhat separated from the social field, as objects in the outer reaches of the frame become perceptibly curved. To the extent that we notice this background context at all, its proportions seem different from those of our primary object of visual interest, the individual. To put it another (more polemical) way: the individual becomes the center of visual gravity, and the social world is made to bend toward them.

VII) Yet High Flying Bird’s persistent refusal to show us what we want to see suggests that it doesn’t want us to concentrate on what’s before our eyes, but rather on what is not. In fact, I would argue that High Flying Bird establishes a visual regime of neoliberal experience precisely to dramatize what cannot be seen from this perspective. As Fredric Jameson famously posited, the gap between “the individual subject, the experience of daily life, the monadic ‘point of view’ on the world to which we are necessarily […] restricted” and the “unlived, abstract” dynamics of globalized capitalism is one that cannot be closed via a straightforward, mimetic (which is to say, realist) representational strategy. To borrow Roberto Schwarz’s evocative statement, “Once reality has migrated into abstract economic functions, it can no longer be read in human faces.”

VIII) Which is why High Flying Bird addresses itself to abstract economic functions right away. In the first sequence of the film’s fictional narrative, Ray chews out Erick for having been scammed into a short-term, high-interest bank loan, offered by an ostensible fan who played on Erick’s fear of a potential lockout (he signed with the league amid foundering negotiations between the owners and the Players Association). This scene does not simply provide a useful context for the exposition of crucial plot elements; it also directs our attention to processes of economic abstraction. Loans are, of course, one of the fundamental units of financialization; they are also a device for extracting value from future (which is to say, not yet visible) activity. The capital put up here is not to pay a wage in return for value-generating labor. Rather, the lender’s capital is advanced on the expectation that, at a later date, value-generating labor will be performed, and the loan’s return (with significant interest) will be derived from wages paid by a third party. Nothing here takes visual form: Erick’s not-yet-performed labor; its potential market value, out of which the owner will pay his wage; the interest accruing on the loan over time. But they all generate revenue for someone other than Erick.

IX) It makes sense, then, that Ray’s rebellion also takes the form of a promise of future value creation. The excitement engendered by the video of Erick and Jamero’s one-on-one match enables Ray to set up a meeting with Netflix, and thus create the possibility of an alternative venue for their talents — one not connected to the NBA. But this potentiality is not realized. Ray admits later that he set up the meeting not to pursue the deal, but rather to unsettle the team owners; as Ray tells Spence, “I just wanted to snatch the game out they hands for a minute. I don’t need it. I just wanted to hold it, just for a second. So they know … like I know.” This threat to overturn the game on top of the game remains, in other words, pure potentiality — which is to say, not visible to our eyes.

X) It is not a coincidence that the platform that provides the ostensibly radical possibilities of Ray’s plan is Netflix, the streaming service that produced High Flying Bird. Many critics have observed that the insurrection imagined within the film — in which an event filmed with an iPhone and disseminated via the internet generates the possibility to go around the established powers of a given industry and pursue new opportunities for its laborers — is one mimicked by High Flying Bird’s production and distribution strategies. As André Holland told New York Magazine, the film’s use of iPhones “matches what the film is about: taking control of your own creative process and being able to get the product to the people with as little buffer in the middle as possible.” On this understanding, however, High Flying Bird is less a tale of class struggle and more an allegory for Soderbergh’s own filmmaking practices, with the revolutionary agency residing primarily in the technology itself, rather than the workers behind or in front of the camera(phone).

XI) In fact, Ray’s proposed Netflix-enabled revolution is no revolution at all — and this is something that Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay makes perfectly clear. When Ray tells Erick about his plan, he uses the language of Silicon Valley start-ups: “We are disruptors: you, me, and Umber.” And if the plan is to take the game away from the NBA, it is also to cut out any collective labor organization as well; Ray enthuses that “the money would go direct to you two [Erick and Jamero] — no Players Association, no league.” When owner David Seton approaches a colleague (it is unclear if he is another owner or part of Seton’s management team) to discuss the situation, the colleague observes that Ray’s pursuit of a competing venue for his client’s labor is “exactly what I’d do” — suggesting that this gambit is not as disruptive of business-as-usual as it sounds. Finally, it is hard to imagine that, if Ray were actually to pursue a deal with Netflix, the platform would not impose various intellectual property restrictions on the players, just as the NBA and their television network partners do now. Which is perhaps why Ray — and High Flying Bird — keep this option virtual. It is an acknowledgment that the revolution will not be streamed — at least not on a for-profit platform.

XII) This is also why the film ends on the decidedly uncinematic spectacle of someone reading a book.

That book, as you’ve probably heard, is Harry Edwards’s The Revolt of the Black Athlete. It is the book inside the envelope delivered to Ray and Erick’s table in the opening tracking shot of the narrative. It remains in that envelope, hidden from our view, for almost the entirety of the film. Sam is the one to discover it — she removes it from the envelope in Erick’s apartment while waiting for him to take a shower, and quickly becomes engrossed in its contents. When Erick returns, she looks at him and says, with palpable urgency, the last line of the film: “You need to read this.”

Edwards’s book — especially the 50th anniversary edition she is reading, which includes a new introduction and afterword from the author reflecting upon recent sports-related activism and its relationship to that chronicled in the original 1969 edition — covers a wide range of topics, including the history of the integration of black athletes into white-controlled sports; the efforts of sports reporters to separate out any political concerns from the games they cover; and the protests by black athletes at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — protests that were, to a significant degree, inspired by Edwards. (The iconic photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowing their heads and raising their fists on the medal podium graces the cover of this new edition.) One might wonder which aspect of the book compels Sam to insist that Erick read it. It might be Edwards’s ongoing comparison of the treatment of black athletes to the conditions of slavery, which would resonate deeply with both Sam and Erick, having listened many times to Spence demand that anyone who refers to slavery in relation to basketball recite the words “I love the Lord and all His black people.” And, of course, Edwards’s declaration that one of the “future directions of the revolt” is “the increasing efforts of black people to control a greater percentage of the athletic industry in America” names the issue at the heart of High Flying Bird’s narrative.

But there is a case to be made that what spurs Sam’s rapt attention to the book is the material that makes up the bulk of its original length: Edwards’s detailed account of the painstaking work that goes into forming a social movement. Edwards describes how his involvement with black student athlete activists at San Jose State University (where he was an assistant professor of sociology) led to efforts to connect with Black Power activists as well as more traditional civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King) as they built an organization to recruit black student athletes at other universities with the ultimate goal of staging a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. The Revolt of the Black Athlete recounts the difficulties of even contacting other student athletes at the time (their mail was often screened by coaches), as well as the educative, consciousness-raising efforts of their campaign (both the original and new versions of the book include an appendix with excerpts from the information booklets that King recommended the group compose and disseminate to all black athletes). He tells many stories about the individual battles fought at various universities, and in the press, over the unequal treatment of black athletes and their connection to the wider black freedom struggles. In short, what The Revolt of the Black Athlete is about, at its heart, is organizing: the slow, laborious, never-complete process of working to constitute a collectivity that can seek to contest and overthrow the conditions of its subjection.

We don’t see this any of this in High Flying Bird, of course. All we see is Sam reading Edwards’s book. The last thing we see her do before this, though — the moment before the film’s Chekhovian gun finally goes off — is put down her iPhone. The film thus closes with the replacement of one device for apprehending the world with another — one with a different line of sight on the social field.

XIII) High Flying Bird does not show us the class struggle, because it cannot. But it tells us a great deal about what it cannot show us.


Derek Nystrom teaches film and cultural studies at McGill University, where he is associate professor of English. He is the author of Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2009).