How the End of Netflix's 'High Flying Bird' Reveals the Movie's Larger Meaning
This post contains spoilers for High Flying Bird.
In the first scene of Steven Soderbergh's High Flying Bird, which recently came out on Netflix to critical acclaim, sports agent Ray (André Holland) gives rookie basketball player Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) a package. It's a "bible," Ray explains, and Erick will know when the time is right to open it. For the rest of the film, the audience is left wondering what's in that manila envelope, which isn't revealed until the very final moments of the action. Ray's bible? The Revolt of the Black Athlete originally published in 1968 by Dr. Harry Edwards, a renowned scholar who has spent his life encouraging resistance among black players in professional sports.
"We loved what the book had said," High Flying Bird screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney tells Thrillist. "Look, it's 2019, which also crossed the 400th year of black people in this country. What The Revolt of the Black Athlete does is look at the ways in which athleticism has always been a platform for activism."
It's a text that underlines what Ray has been doing throughout the film: In his quest to bring an end to the lockout that's been keeping players off the court, he figures out a way to subvert the NBA and its team owners entirely. He uses a charity event in the South Bronx to orchestrate a meet-up between feuding teammates Erick and Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), turning their Twitter scrimmage into a battle of basketball skills. The one-on-one face-off is captured on camera by excited kids and goes viral. That allows Ray to start fielding offers for similar types of pickup contests to be broadcast by streaming services like Facebook and, well, Netflix, the very home of High Flying Bird. By going around the NBA and its network television broadcasts, Ray finds a way to put money directly into the hands of the players -- and scare the owners into giving into their employees' demands.
By the end of the running time, Ray has succeeded on multiple levels. The team owners have caved, and he has the pleasure of telling his colleague (Zachary Quinto) that he was the one who orchestrated the end of the lockout. But he also has a visitor in his office: Dr. Edwards, a.k.a. Harry Edwards, who appears briefly in a cameo. It's just after that that Ray's former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) finds The Revolt of the Black Athlete in Erick's apartment.
The gift is almost the "Chekhov's gun" of the movie. It's introduced in the first act, and goes off in the last. But its impact is more intellectual than visceral. According to McCraney -- best known for writing the play that inspired Moonlight -- featuring the book was an idea from Holland, who wanted to underline what was driving Ray's actions. To the same effect, Edwards was a consultant on the film. "André reached out to Dr. Edwards and spoke to him most often," McCraney says. "He would tell us, 'hey, [Edwards] read the script here's his notes, here's the things we want to be careful about. Here's the section of the book you should read.'"
McCraney explains that Edwards' counsel was usually focused on making sure there was historical context to the plot. "We wanted to keep rooting that in the reality of what we do in the industry, which is we take something that we love and we commodify it it," McCraney says. "We monetize it. We make an industry around it. And sometimes that works out great and sometimes it doesn't."
Those last two beats featuring Edwards and his work are thrilling in how they invite the viewer to reconsider what they just watched play out on a larger scale. Edwards' work began in the 1960s, when he mobilized black athletes at San Jose State -- his alma mater where he was then teaching -- to protest the inequitable conditions they were subjected to. Over the years, he has worked within professional sports leagues and outside of them. More recently, he was a sounding board for Colin Kaepernick. He wrote in The Revolt of the Black Athlete that the titular movement "in America as a phase of the overall black liberation movement is as legitimate as the sit-ins, the freedom rides, or any other manifestation of Afro-American efforts to gain freedom. The goals of the revolt likewise are the same as those of any other legitimate phase of the movement -- equality, justice, the regaining of black dignity lost during 300 years of abject slavery, and the attainment of the basic human and civil rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the concept of American democracy." Throughout High Flying Bird, McCraney threads in dialogue about how what's at stake is more than just entertainment, and demonstrating how organizations like the NBA engage in their own form of oppression.
But McCraney, Soderbergh, and Holland purposefully don't go too far in explaining the connection between Edwards, his seminal book, and High Flying Bird. "We wanted to make a film about questions and not answers, and wanted to start a dialogue," McCraney says. Instead, the placement almost goads the curious viewer into doing further research and retroactively applying their own revelations to the dynamics at play in the film.