In 2019, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh helped sell an independently financed new feature to Netflix for the first time. The brainchild of producer/star Andre Holland, “Moonlight” scribe Tarrell Alvin McCraney and Soderbergh himself, “High Flying Bird” is a lean, razor-sharp experiment centered around a theoretical NBA lockout. The film examines what that industry-wide crisis might look like in the present day, where information, images, and ideas move through the world faster than lightspeed. 

Holland stars as Ray Burke, a sports agent for a powerful firm in New York City. A lockout that many initially thought would only last for a short while is pushing up against the six-month mark. While the “Stephs and LeBrons of the world,” as Burke puts it, have money long enough to weather any storm, the rookies and check-to-check players will suffer big. Through Burke and his new client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), the film gives a kaleidoscopic look at the backroom machinations of the modern sports world and its reliance on the exploitation and subjugation of Black athletes. Through quick-witted dialogue, clever plotting, and Soderbergh’s inventive camera work, “Bird” does more with its tight 90-minute runtime than many new films do with twice the screen real estate.

Like Soderbergh’s prior outing, the psychological thriller  “Unsane,” “High Flying Bird” was shot entirely on the iPhone 8, a technical feat that overshadowed the film itself in the press. All anyone in the media wanted to talk about was technical jargon and wondering how Soderbergh, who acts as cinematographer and editor on all his films, could make something that looked this good on a device many of us were struggling to get decent selfies from. They didn’t care so much that he had made one of the most radical and invigorating films starring a predominantly Black cast in ages.

But the choice to film this way was, like most of Soderbergh’s creative decisions, a practical one. Using a camera as small as a phone allowed a movie of this scale to be shot in less than a month on a $2 million budget. That pragmatic approach to storytelling made a film like this possible.

Soderbergh had worked with Holland previously on the Cinemax series “The Knick,” and Holland was close with McCraney from their theater background, so lengthy conversations between the three about the racial complexities of sports history led to this unique and thrilling tale. 

Much like Burke in the film seeks to cut out the establishment and put on basketball games with the players themselves, Holland, Soderbergh, and McCraney are shooting their shot here, seizing the means of cinematic production. White movie stars have no shortage of opportunities to finance sturdy thrillers like “Michael Clayton” or other competency porn where a fast-talking man in a suit who is always three steps ahead of his opps gets one over on the bigwigs. But here, Holland made that happen for himself, with he and McCraney imbuing the picture with heavy influence from Dr. Harry Edwards’ book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” 

He makes a late appearance in the film, as does his book, with the legendary actor and director Bill Duke as a youth basketball coach espousing many of his ideas directly on the screen. When explicating the nature of the NBA’s con and how uncoincidental it was that integration in the league happened right as the Harlem Globetrotters were becoming an independent phenomenon, Duke’s Spencer muses, “they built a game on top of the game. They want control of a game, a game that we play better.”

Since returning from a brief bout of retirement, Soderbergh, ever the tireless workhorse, became increasingly interested in challenging the theatrical model. While filmmaker Christopher Nolan was the enthusiastic face of the theatrical-first business model, Soderbergh worked to get his films seen by as many eyeballs as possible long before the pandemic would force the rest of his colleagues to do the same by necessity. Putting “High Flying Bird” on Netflix certainly got it seen by more people than it would have gotten with a limited-release theatrical run, where it would have been banished to the island of irrelevance alongside most modern art house products. 

Revisiting “Bird” on the eve of a recession, in an even more uncertain world than the one it was made in, it’s clear that the industry needs more pictures like this one. It’s comforting to watch a white filmmaker throwing his weight behind a Black actor and a Black writer and finding the best way to unobtrusively bring their vision to life, all the while aligning their ideas with the same thematic preoccupations he’s been fussing over for thirty plus years. 

It shows that Black stories can be told without relying solely upon the regurgitation of historical grief or nakedly turning traditionally white stories into Black ones simply by swapping skin tones and not the experiences that come with them.

There’s a lot to be said about Netflix’s degrading quality as a streaming platform, but for housing this modern classic, it still holds some utility.

“High Flying Bird” is currently streaming on Netflix.