High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet