André Holland Talks Netflix's 'High Flying Bird' and the Racial Politics of Sports
"Simpatico." That's the word André Holland, star of the new Netflix sports drama High Flying Bird, chooses when describing his connection with its two authors, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney: Like-minded artists in lockstep with one another. "So much of my journey and my career is about finding people I can mix with, and like working with, and feel that with," Holland explains in a recent conversation with Thrillist. "Steven and Tarell are both of that ilk."
That harmonious quality shows in High Flying Bird's purposeful cadence and cool self-assurance. It's also the product of five years spent workshopping the project with Soderbergh, with whom Holland collaborated on the Cinemax series The Knick between 2014 and 2015, as well as McCraney, whose unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue gave Barry Jenkins the blueprint for his 2016 breakout picture, Moonlight, in which Holland co-stars. McCraney and Holland go further back than that, all the way to late 2006, when they were both students; Holland appeared in some of the first plays McCraney got produced, starting in 2007. "I think I've been in pretty much all of them except for the one that he's putting on Broadway right now, Choir Boy," Holland says. "Working with him has definitely been a cornerstone of my career."
Like "simpatico," "trust" is a key phrase for Holland. Trust is liberating; it "weans you off of approval," as he puts it, so actors strive to trust their directors, their writers, and even their characters, which is essential for a film like High Flying Bird. Set in media res during a pro basketball lockout, with players and owners battling for primacy in the NBA while games go unplayed and merchandise goes unsold, Ray Burke (Holland) is a sports agent attempting to do right by his star client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). Individuals, though, remain nearly helpless against the macro forces of money, greed, and entrenched socioeconomic politics.
Ray wants power back in the hands of the players. Unsurprisingly, the owners want to keep it in theirs. Caught through the lens of Soderbergh's camera, which, like 2018's Unsane, is a humble iPhone, the movie has the texture of the stage and the scope of the cinema; Soderbergh films characters as either towering or towered over, but McCraney writes their dialogue in the urgent language of the theater. High Flying Bird moves with propulsive immediacy. The characters trade banter as readily as teams trade their players. One moment the viewer might feel like they're on pace with the script, and the next they might feel like they're on the back foot, struggling to catch up. The challenge of keeping pace with the rapid-fire dialogue extends to the movie's cast.
Holland, of course, has the advantage of having previously worked with McCraney and Soderbergh. Even so, he acknowledges that High Flying Bird's writing is on a level that requires a higher degree of study. "The first scene of the movie, I think as it's scripted, is about 10 pages," Holland points out. "We cut it. In the editing process, you know, it got trimmed down to much less. But on the page it's about 10 pages of Ray talking nonstop." McCraney's work requires energy, or as Holland says, "an attack": Actors must approach McCraney's material with "an intense clarity" of intention, an understanding of what the story's about. For Holland, that meant advance preparation. "I started working on it, I don't know, probably a month before we started filming, just sort of getting the words in my mouth," he says. "I really had to rehearse the film as though it were a play." So he booked a rehearsal studio and practiced until he got it perfect.
High Flying Bird is built not only on dexterity of craft, but on necessity of message. It's auspicious that the film dropped on Netflix the same week as Super Bowl LIII; football and basketball are a world apart, but McCraney's overarching metaphor, that of the NBA as a modern day auction block, applies equally to both professional sports. The inherent racism that plays out across America takes on a unique form in the high-stakes, high-paying world of professional sports, and while "racism" can refer to prejudice in its most violent, malignant forms, less obvious is the subtler prejudice that serves as one of High Flying Bird's throughlines.
For the film, for McCraney, and for Holland, basketball provides a vehicle for discussing these less overt prejudices. "That question is one that, in my opinion, is at the heart of Tarell's plays," says Holland. "It's definitely something that he and I speak about all the time. How can we protect our humanity within these industries that we find ourselves in? And how can we talk about the unfairness, the systemic problems that exist, that make creativity difficult to express, that make just carving out a life difficult?" He calls that dynamic "a part of life," and ultimately, that's what he, Soderbergh, and McCraney wanted High Flying Bird to be about. "There's a lot to talk about when it comes to that intersection of race and justice in sport, but it's something that seems to impact all of our lives all of the time."
The film's quick pace, along with the rapid-fire exchanges between characters, finely hones that element into an idea that cuts like a razor. "I love the Lord and all his black people," is an adage Ray and his mentor, Spence (Bill Duke), repeat often, expressing the ingrained trauma bleeding through High Flying Bird, what Holland defines as "the psychic weight of this systemic oppression and racism." That weight presses down on Erick, and it's easy to imagine it pressing down on the real-life NBA players filmed in candid interviews dispersed throughout the film's running time: Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell. All sports take a toll on the human body, but they also take a psychological toll.
Ray isn't immune to this psychological toll as an agent. He clearly cares about his job, and about Erick, but he keeps himself at a distance from others as a rule; he's uncomfortable with most displays of affection seen in the movie, and has no close relationships that we see apart from his relationship to Spence. "He sort of has separated himself from himself, in a way," Holland notes. "To me, that can be one of the ways in which systemic oppression affects people." He pauses for a beat, adding, "Certainly it's how it's affected me, and I wanted that to be a part of the character."
As Holland brings his own experiences to Ray, and as Soderbergh and McCraney bring the experiences of Jackson, Towns, and Mitchell to High Flying Bird, associations arise between the film's narrative and narratives couched in sports today. As Super Bowl LIII commenced with a montage of civil rights leaders, Colin Kaepernick's presence loomed over festivities, a reminder of the NFL's performative civic-mindedness. That, of course, is football, but the lockout of High Flying Bird, however fictionalized, reflects real lockouts of years past (the most recent one came in 2011), and the struggles the movie dramatizes are the same struggles black athletes face in sports right now. Holland, McCraney, and Soderbergh want to dazzle their viewers with peerless craftsmanship. Together, they also want people to realize how deep, and how insidious, the systemic discrimination chronicled in their film goes.