For the vast majority of its runtime, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird is just Ocean’s Eleven with a different cast of characters. That’s not meant to be an insult; nobody has mastered the elaborate-yet-breezy heist flick quite like Soderbergh. But still, much like Danny Ocean attempts to steal millions from three of Las Vegas’ most prestigious casinos, Andre Holland’s sports agent Ray Burke spends most of High Flying Bird concocting and executing a plan to resolve a professional basketball lockout from the inside.
Burke’s interactions with everyone from team owners to players’ representatives always center around the notion the business of basketball is only successful due to the likability of the game itself. “Do you think these rich white dudes will let the sexiest sport fall by the wayside?” he asks at the beginning of the film. And yet, for a movie so invested in the so-called sexiness of basketball, its characters occupy much more bandwidth talking about it than playing.
However, for one two-minute sequence about halfway in, High Flying Bird becomes a sports movie. Burke instigates a media frenzy around the personal rivalry between two high-profile players, one of whom is his star client Erick Scott, played by actor Melvin Gregg. After some crafty maneuvering, he manages to get both players on the same court. And though an NBA lockout prevents athletes from playing in organized team basketball, it has nothing to say about a casual game of one-on-one. So, with tensions rising and egos fueled, Burke hands a basketball to Erick, Erick dribbles the ball through his legs and behind his back, and the two players get to work.
Crucially, in this moment the camera doesn’t cut. Typically in cinematic sports sequences, directors use shaky cinematography, awkward slow-motion and jumpy editing to disguise the fact that their actors aren’t actually good at the sport they’re supposed to be playing. Here’s an example from Any Given Sunday. Here’s one from White Men Can’t Jump. But in High Flying Bird, Soderbergh lingers on the action for an extra few seconds so that we can observe Erick effortlessly handle the ball the way a professional athlete should. He doesn’t have to cut, of course, because Melvin Gregg can really play basketball. And for one split-second, he shows us what the NBA – and by extension, the movie itself – has been missing.
If Erick Scott were as convincing a phenom as Troy Bolton in High School Musical, the entire film would fall flat. Why bother advocating for an athlete’s right to play when that athlete isn’t worth watching in the first place? Perhaps it’s a silly question; High Flying Bird is a movie, after all, and if viewers want to watch basketball played at the highest level, they can always change the channel to NBA on TNT. But at the same time, attention to the finer details of the sport allows viewers to believe that this story could really take place in our world. It’s the same logic that generates an audience for every new Mission: Impossible film — the story wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if Tom Cruise wasn’t actually risking his life.
Furthermore, Erick Scott needs a ball in his hands to demonstrate the value of his presence in this story. Whereas every other character speaks their mind in lengthy, articulate diatribes, Erick is often relegated to the background of his own plight, rarely given a chance to speak at all. It’s a real turning of the tables, considering the story is ultimately about him. Once the lockout is over, all these agents and executives will fade into the shadows while the whole world will tune in to watch Erick shoot a ball. So, if Gregg can’t adequately convince us that his talents matter on a large scale, then the rest of the drama that High Flying Bird carefully constructs will be effectively rendered meaningless.
This is where the unique skill-set of Melvin Gregg comes into play, for not only can he credibly play basketball at a high-level, but he also gives an honest, remarkable performance off the court. His viewpoints, while more simplistic than those of Burke and his co-conspirators, speak to his motivations directly. “You said don’t worry about the money!”, he yells at one point. “What are you doing, man? This is my career, I’ve always dreamed of playing in the league!” He doesn’t sugarcoat his language or hide behind his pedigree, because he knows that while his agent gets to assert his worth while he’s off the court, he can only prove himself while he’s on it. Gregg plays Erick as a hungry and defeated ex-jock, whose great skill is locked behind bars as a bunch of power-players in suits pretend they run the show.
It’s important to mention that this isn’t the first time Melvin Gregg has played a character known for his basketball prowess – it’s not even the first time he’s done it for Netflix. Just six months ago, Gregg portrayed top high-school prospect Demarcus Tillman in Season 2 of the mockumentary American Vandal. Tillman represents a similar archetype as Erick Scott, playing into the concept of the token-black athlete among a sea of wealthy white students at a prestigious prep school. In both stories, other characters are asked to excuse Gregg’s off-color tendencies and African-American Vernacular English due to his on-court talents, effectively dehumanizing him while propping him up as some sort of communal icon. To top it off, American Vandal routinely intersperses Tillman’s dialogue with clips of his faux highlight tape.
Again, though, this demonstration of talent allows Gregg’s thespianic tendencies to shine through. When Tillman deadpans one-liners like, “Dolphins are mammals, bro. That’s crazy,” they don’t come across as classic dumb-jock fodder because we know that Gregg has the real-life skills to make this character three-dimensional. He’s not just an actor who can feasibly play sports, and he’s not just an athlete who can believably read lines. He’s the total package, an actor-athlete so convincing on both ends of the spectrum that he supersedes any simple classification. Gregg manages to be both things so completely that they meld into one singular character, unchanged whether he’s on or off the basketball court.
And so, in High Flying Bird, it’s Gregg’s unique capacity to cross-reference that plants him so firmly at the center of the narrative. Despite his presence as a fish-out-of-water in a world of businesslike negotiation, his grounded approach to character never allows us to forget that it’s his legacy that will ultimately persist after the events of the movie conclude. At all times, he looks, speaks, and feels like a guy who commands an audience in another sphere of influence. In Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh doesn’t need to waste time convincing you that George Clooney can pull off a ludicrous robbery, because Clooney’s inherent charm makes the case for itself. Similarly, Gregg doesn’t have to fake the natural confidence of a ballplayer because, at his core, he is a ballplayer. And even if it’s just for one extended take in the middle of the movie, he’s going to make sure you see that too.
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