Steven Soderbergh’s electrifying new film “High Flying Bird,” which debuted Friday on Netflix, tells the story of a fictional NBA lockout set in the Instagram Age, in which longstanding concerns about money, race and social justice are galvanized by disputes over players’ personal images, and who has the right to control them. (Appropriately, the entire film was shot on an iPhone.)
The film’s dense but fast-moving script, written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”), is also replete with references to the game’s history — not least to the currents of protest and politics that have coursed through pro basketball since it was segregated. There’s a rich subtext here, much of it only hinted at. Below is a spoiler-filled guide.
What were the all-black leagues?
As in baseball, football and most areas of American life, segregation kept black players out of the white pro basketball leagues, confined to amateur and semipro all-black teams, which formed in schools, churches, community centers and the like. Games were frequently paired with ragtime dances to make for a full evening of entertainment.
The best known of these barnstorming teams, often called “Black Fives” by historians, were the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Renaissance — or, as they were better known, the Rens — were so impressive that in 1947, coach Joe Lapchick of the New York Knicks lobbied the Basketball Association of America to admit the team into the young league, a precursor of the National Basketball Association. The owners voted him down. The next year, a competing league, the National Basketball League, brought the team in instead.
How did the Harlem Globetrotters help spur integration?
Indirectly. The Rens and the Globetrotters, in particular, were internationally known for their dazzling play, often besting white teams when matched up for exhibition games. The Rens, for example, beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars in the first integrated tournament championship in 1939; the Globetrotters beat the Minnesota Lakers in a celebrated 1948 exhibition game that The Chicago Tribune pinpointed as key to the integration of the game.
As Spencer (Bill Duke) explains in “High Flying Bird”: “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters exhibitions started going international. Control. They wanted the control of a game that we played, and we played better.”
How did the NBA integrate?
Lapchick, however, did not give up. In 1950, the year after the Basketball Association of America absorbed the smaller National Basketball League and became the NBA, he signed Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, who had played for the Rens and the Globetrotters (as well as in baseball’s Negro leagues), to join the Knicks. That same season, West Virginia State’s Earl Lloyd joined the Washington Capitals and Chuck Cooper was drafted out of Duquesne by the Boston Celtics. (Another black player, Hank DeZonie, played five games with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in December of that season.)
Talking to The Times in 2008, Lloyd told stories of being heckled and spat upon by fans, although the abuse he encountered was “no comparison,” he said, to what Jackie Robinson withstood three years earlier in professional baseball.
Wasn’t there an actual NBA lockout?
Yes — in fact, there were four. (One lasted only a few hours.) In the first dialogue scene of “High Flying Bird,” sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) tells a client, “Last time this happened, folks was broke left and right!” That “last time” was the 2011 lockout, which lasted five months and resulted in the loss of 16 regular-season games, the entire preseason and an estimated $400 million in revenue for team owners and players.
A 10-year deal was announced late that November, which heavily favored owners. It reduced player salaries by nearly $300 million and shifted an estimated $3 billion to the owners over the course of the contract. The truncated 66-game season finally got underway on Christmas Day.
What about those exhibition games?
Much screen time in “High Flying Bird” is spent contemplating the legality of public appearances and exhibition games by league-signed players during the lockout. The 2011 lockout was threaded with similar concerns. The film’s fictional team owners grouse over the attention attracted by a “lockout street ball event in Las Vegas,” presumably inspired by the “lockout league” in Vegas, which comprised two weeks of pickup games with more than 70 NBA players in September 2011, according to The Las Vegas Sun. (Profits from ticket sales were donated to charity).
Dozens of players filled the pay gap by picking up spots on teams in Europe and Japan. As The Times’s Howard Beck noted at the time, however, “a vast majority of them are rookies, middling veterans and fringe players.”
Who is Michele Roberts?
As New York magazine and others have noted, the character Myra (Sonja Sohn) strongly resembles Michele Roberts, who became the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 2014. The first woman in history to head a major sports union, Roberts made waves from the beginning. A Times profile a few months into her tenure noted that she had already “forcefully questioned the league’s pay model and labeled its entire cadre of owners as replaceable.”
Like the character she inspired, Roberts is a tough-as-nails negotiator who is undaunted by working in a male-dominated world. “My past,” she told players while making her case for the job, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
Who is Dr. Harry Edwards?
In the film’s first scene, Ray gives a client a mysterious package, calling it “the Bible.” It contains the book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete” by the sports sociologist and civil rights advocate Dr. Harry Edwards, who also appears briefly in Ray’s office near the end of the film. Edwards first came to national prominence for organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, whose members Tommie Smith and John Carlos made headlines for raising their gloved fists while receiving medals at the 1968 Olympics.
Edwards has spent the ensuing years teaching, writing, consulting and leading protests. “Revolt,” published in 1969, argued that racism is as prevalent in sports as in any other section of society. “The sports world is not a rose flourishing in the middle of a wasteland,” he writes. “It is part and parcel of that wasteland, reeking of the same racism that corrupts other areas of our society.”
What’s the story behind the music?
“High Flying Bird” is bookended by recordings of two folk-rock classics, both performed by Richie Havens as part of his opening set at Woodstock. The title track, Havens’s recording of a folk song written by Billy Edd Wheeler, was praised by the musicologist Richie Unterberger for its “arresting minor-keyed melody and brooding lyrics, contrasting the freedom of a bird to the singer’s earthbound misery.” It isn’t hard to connect those lyrics to Ray’s notion that his clients should free themselves from the earthbound constraints of the sports industry and bring the game back to its roots.
“Handsome Johnny,” which Havens wrote with Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., closes the film, telling the story of a young man who marches off to a series of wars. Given the movie’s themes, the song’s refrain is appropriate: “It’s a long hard road, hey, before we’ll be free.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.