Netflix's High Flying Bird Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney on Queerness and Basketball | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Film & TV

Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney on the Queerness of Netflix's High Flying Bird

André Holland in High Flying Bird
André Holland in High Flying Bird Netflix
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and starring André Holland, Netflix's latest release is a riveting sports drama titled High Flying Bird. But it's more than just the tale of a sports agent trying to disrupt business during an NBA lockout; it's a tale that prioritizes characters who are black, who are women, and who are queer, reclaiming what those in power are trying to stop them from having.

It's a film full of fast dialogue and lengthy conversations about basketball and all its highs and lows, the selling of one's self, the imbalances present in capitalism, selfie lighting for different skin tones, the paths life takes us down, slavery, Bible verses, pregnancy, and Fiona Apple (whose song "Slow Like Honey" is jokingly, and appropriately, referred to as "college lesbian music").

In finding the right tone and pace for these characters, Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Moonlight) and Miami native McCraney tells New Times, "I write trying to find the voice and velocity and need of the characters. In film, sometimes that voice is visual, so less words, more color. But sometimes, the ideas are coming so fast that people can't get it out fast enough, and for that they need words."

This kind of precision is best depicted through Holland's character Ray, who McCraney says "recognizes that he's part of a system that asks these players to do some incredibly crazy things." Though many may overlook the film's queerness, the writer insists it's an integral part of the narrative. Ray, whose star basketball player cousin was closeted before dying, carries the guilt of this with him.

"Queerness is there all along and underlying, but not talked about, and it was really important for me to talk about all the players who can't come out, and couldn't come out," McCraney notes. "It's not just because of the toxic masculinity of society, but in their ability to franchise and make the kind of money they need to make. They gotta hide parts of themselves because they need the endorsements."

"It's a financial and economic burden, but it also has to do with your place or comfortability with those around you — your peers, your community — and Ray recognizes he's part of the system... You know how many players didn't come out and died? Or still haven't come out and are hiding that part of themselves, or other parts of themselves, and can't bring that forward because they are immensely worried about their franchise, or their brand?"

But High Flying Bird's queer sensibilities extend to the levity present in a number of conversations. A recurring bit in which Bill Duke's coach Spence forces anyone on his court who mentions slavery to recite, "I love the Lord and all his black people," is a perfect example of how minorities use laughter to explore past histories and traumas. "We want to use humor to talk about how we can't escape this shit," McCraney comments. "The dog and pony show of the auction block, the underpaid and undervalued labor. It's what capitalism found its foundations on. We see it in all our industries."

And High Flying Bird is about how the people in power, like Kyle MacLachlan's team owner, aren't trying to help or protect the players, or even individuals like Sonja Sohn's executive director Myra, negotiating deals off the court. "There are folks who think, 'Well, they're paid a whole bunch of money, so why care?'" McCraney says. "They're being paid to shut up and not be themselves."

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Kyle MacLachlan and Sonja Sohn in High Flying Bird
"There are people who feel like these people make that kind of money, so they don't need to say anything. They don't need to be political, they don't need to protest, they don't need to kneel, they don't need to wear shirts. And if they go broke afterwards, that's on them. Can anyone really say they're looking out for the longevity of these players, then? If not, cool. Just say that in the beginning so they don't feel like the industry is saying, 'We're family.'"

While the film is fictional, it is inherently influenced by the reality of the game. In fact, it includes testimonies from basketball players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Donovan Mitchell about their lives in the NBA. As McCraney explains, "If you're a black person who's been chosen to be the one out of your neighborhood to go do this thing, you oftentimes recognize that you have so many intersections where you're being tugged in different directions."

While the film's central player, Melvin Gregg's Erick, is happy to abide by the rules of the game as long as he gets to play, McCraney seems more interested in how everyone around him is affected by the lockout, and how characters like Ray can influence Erick, whether by saving his career or gifting him a copy of Harry Edwards' Revolt of the Black Athlete.

"All of these things that Myra, Ray, his cousin, and others have to deal with, in a way that Erick can't, are important. He's just like, I wanna play. I have an opportunity. I'm cisgender. I have privilege in this way. Just put me in the court. Disruption? For what?'"

High Flying Bird, then, exists as a testament to the power of those who disrupt. As McCraney states, "I think, least of all, the best thing I could do in creating a film like this is make sure that all the infrastructures are represented. It's not just about being black and male, but perhaps being queer, or being a woman."

High Flying Bird premieres on Netflix Friday, February 8. Tarell Alvin McCraney's Florida-based drama series, David Makes Man, will debut this summer on OWN.
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