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.