Arena lights are off, locker rooms are empty and primetime TV slots are dotted with holes.
We don’t have to be told that explicitly in Steven Soderbergh’s confidently insightful new film “High Flying Bird”. Curiously empty New York City sidewalks and forlorn attitudes tell us what we need to know: Professional basketball games are at a standstill amid a lockout, something seemingly as inevitable as the rising sun or a Russell Westbrook triple-double grinding to a halt. (Translation: Team owners and players’ representatives can’t come to an agreement, putting on-court action on hold.)
But a whole new kind of battle is underway, one the film touts as “the game on top of the game.” And it’s a game that Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney take a magnifying glass to, exposing the centuries-old racial systems that labor relations in pro sports leagues are powered by.
In the hands of a director with trademark kinetic swagger and a screenwriter just two years removed from winning an Oscar for “Moonlight” and channeling his inner Aaron Sorkin, watching the politics of a basketball league (that is essentially the NBA in all but name) play out at a nonstop, infinite dribble is a joy. “High Flying Bird” is like being in a game of pickup where the stud you’re defending tells you exactly how he’s going to score on you, yet you’re still amazed when he pulls it off.