Tarell Alvin McCraney & Andre Holland on “High Flying Bird”

Michel Martin sits down with screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney and Executive Producer Andre Holland to discuss their breakthrough sports film shot entirely on an iPhone, “High Flying Bird.”

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And we’re turning now to a different story with our next guest actor Andre Holland and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the star and scribe of the Oscar-winning Moonlight. Their new film, “High Flying Bird,” tells the story of a sports agent in the midst of an NBA knockout and it follows his fight to put power back into the hands of mainly black athletes, grappling with topics like social justice and race. The film was directed by the Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh who shot it all on an iPhone. Holland and McCraney sat down with our Michel Martin to talk about “High Flying Bird” and why it’s necessary for African-Americans to create their own stories.


MICHEL MARTIN: Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney and Executive Producer and Star Andre Holland are both with us now. Thank you both so much for talking to us.


MARTIN: One of the writers reviewing the film called it the most radical sports film he’s ever seen. And not just because it’s a basketball movie with hardly any basketball in it. Tell me a little bit more about what you were going for because I understand that you worked on this over a period of years really, right? Can you talk about that?


MARTIN: Yes. So what do you — what were you going for?

MCCRANEY: I think it’s what we were going for really. I mean the nuisance, the beginning of the piece came from conversations that Andre had to have it with Steven. And they brought me into that conversation. They brought features, and clips, and articles, and books, a very important book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, and they put it in front of me and said, “Look. What are you thinking about this? How do we make to story into something that is about an industry that circles around one of the most powerful and exciting games ever?”

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about those conversations you’re having with Steven Soderbergh. What was the germ of the idea for you?

HOLLAND: It was sort of two-fold. One, we were working on the show “The Knick”, Steve and I were, and I was really enjoying the process. And it’s really been a long time coming. And I mean, before I feel like I got a part that I can really sink my teeth into. So I thought, well, if I’m going to have the kind of career that I want, it’s probably going to involve me making things for myself. Steven agreed with that. And so I have this idea about —

MARTIN: Which is very generous to actually tell the truth to your face, right?


MARTIN: I mean for somebody to —

HOLLAND: Absolutely.

MARTIN: — who knows the industry as well as he does to say yes, you’re right.

HOLLAND: Exactly. He didn’t sell me a dream. I said, no, just keep working hard and keep on auditioning, keep on pushing. He said, “No, man. Actually, there’s not really a lane for you so you have to go out and make the stuff.”

MARTIN: I do want to get to the film but I do want to hear a little bit more about what it felt to hear I got to make my own work, I’ve got to create my own world because it’s not going to just be there for me.

HOLLAND: Well, the truth is it was sad. It felt sad to me to hear that. I think it was — I thought that going to a good university, going to a good graduate program, and then working hard, and being on time, being responsible, doing good work was enough. And then I realized that it wasn’t. And I can see that other people around me were getting great opportunities. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not begrudging anybody and I’m not — this is not poor me session. But the reality of it was that there were opportunities that people got that weren’t necessarily available to people of color, right. I think you had similar experiences —

MCCRANEY: Oh, absolutely.

HOLLAND: — you’re kind of realizing the limitations.

MCCRANEY: The slap in the face or the bump on the glass ceiling, which I’m sure you understand and know about, there’s a moment where you recognize that the American dream is a bit of a wolf ticket. They tell you in the good schools that we’ve gone to and the good institutions that we go through that there is no limit to your imagination. And, in fact, there is. There’s an industry that is constantly keeping you checked a balance in terms of how far you can go and how far you can fail, how many jobs you have to take, how many projects you need to do it once just to keep up with your white counterparts or your white peers. We begrudge our friends nothing. We’re not trying to take anything away from them but we are being asked to do more for less. And clearly, you can see how that made its way into the film, into the ethos of the film.

MARTIN: Perfect segue to the film. Thank you for that. Let’s play a clip that describes kind of the point — we’re not giving it all away for people haven’t seen it yet. What if the players were in control?


RAY BURKE: The money would go direct to you two. No Players Association. No league.

ERICK SCOTT: Just 10 percent for you then taxes, right?

BURKE: It ain’t about the money, man. We’re talking about money because that’s what makes the listen and pay attention, but this makes you the decider, brother. The game that they made over the game is over. It’s your game now if you own it. Come on, South Side, we don’t need the league, man. We don’t need the Players Association. Let them battle that shit out over network rights and splits for the next few months while you, me, and a few others, we wreck shop. Paid event by event like —

SCOTT: Boxing.

BURKE: But without the brain damage.


MARTIN: Well, OK. It’s about control. Who do you think your audience is for this film?

MCCRANEY: I mean I always start with an audience of one trying to make sure that the person who began studying and researching and having conversations with Andre and Steven Soderbergh about this will I be fed, will I know more than I did before? Increasingly, you want folk who engage in any system, systems in this country in the way it works, to want to look at this and see, yes, the critique, but also how we all play a part in it, how we all hold up the system in some ways and are afraid to be disruptors. I mean I know I have that fear. I still have that fear and I think the engagement or that conversation is what I’m interested in. And I’m interested in folks who want to talk about that.

MARTIN: Interesting. Andre, what about you? Who are you interested in talking to?

HOLLAND: You know it’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And tonight, we have our first public screening of the film and my nephew who’s 12-years-old is coming to see it. And he’s a —

MARTIN: Is he a baller?

HOLLAND: No. Well, he could play. He could play. He’s at the beginning of it but he can play, he can hoop. But he’s a young black one from Alabama and so it’s important to me that he sees it and sees in it somebody that looks like him who’s taken charge of their own lives.

MARTIN: And so I’m going to ask you though, what is it that you want him to see? Do you want him to see disruption? Do you want him to see — you can think thoughts that have not already been handed to you?

HOLLAND: Exactly.

MARTIN: He could read from a script that you wrote.

HOLLAND: Yes, that and also that you can say that you can look at the circumstances of your life and say, “Well, I can still have some agency within this and I can take charge of the situation and shape my life to be what I want it to be, regardless of what people have told me is possible for myself.”

MARTIN: You know it’s funny because I was describing this film to people who had not yet seen it. And one person said to me, “Oh, is this like Black Panther without the magic?”

HOLLAND: Oh, I got to think about that.

MARTIN: Isn’t that deep because, in a way, what they’re saying is that had to be made up, because the idea that the players could take a controlling position seemed like science fiction.

MCCRANEY: And that’s this terrifying thing about it is like we believe that this disruption or this new system or this way of putting control in the players’ hands is far and distant in science fiction. But in truth, it’s like — it’s actually right there. All people really need to do is reach out and do it. And I think again, it goes back to that question of how much agency do you actually want?

MARTIN: Well — but as we’ve seen with the protests by NFL players which have largely dissipated you know, by the way, their nonviolent protests over police violence and other issues have not been well received by some people. Now even setting aside the fact that the president has been harping on this because one assumes that he finds it to be a good issue for him, you have to assume that it wouldn’t be a good issue for him if what he’s saying didn’t resonate with certain people. So the bottom line is for some people, they don’t want to hear it. They feel like, you know, what sports is, my release, my relaxation, I don’t want to bring your politics into it. Or they say look, these people are making big money, what do I care what they think? Pull up your shorts and play. And so what do you both say to that?

HOLLAND: To the people who say, “Well, you know, shut up and dribble”, I would say that there’s been a long lineage of people who have been athletes who have also been activists, who have been vocal about this right. Dr. Harry Edwards who consulted with us on this, obviously in his book, we — you know, The Revolt of the Black Athlete whose book we borrowed from —

MARTIN: How many sociologists make an appearance in a — like what the heck.

HOLLAND: Well, he’s a great guy and he really believed in what we’re trying to do and helped us to sort of stay on the right track but he helped me to the history of this. It’s been going on for a long time. So I would say that citizens have a right or responsibility, right, to speak up and to be vocal and to be political I think. And I don’t think athletes are an exception to that rule.

MCCRANEY: At the moment you start telling citizens not to have their politics involved, you have to look at the economics of it which is 60 to 70 percent of athletes out after their tenure in the NFL, five years later they’re in financial duress. Same with the NBA. If they’re not a marquee player and they haven’t sort of banked a kind of wealth that they can sort of rest on for the rest of their lives, then they and their family now fall into a financial burden. But also, if it is a matter of just shut up and dribble, then why we wear Jordan’s? The legacy of these people on the court is going into a kind of feeling that is intimate. It is both policy of a city. It means something when a player leaves, is traded. People really feel [13:50:00] betrayed by that. That’s not just shut up and dribble. That means that is connected to a community, that is connected to folks. So you can’t ask a person to represent those things, to be economically engaged in those ways, and then to have no ability to speak out for what should be their betterment.

MARTIN: One of the things that struck me about the film is that it’s not just about control. It’s also about vulnerability. It shares with the other work you’ve all done together. Moonlight which is this much-lauded film drawn from your play in which you also have a role. And I wondered if there’s any way in which your upbringing informed this film as well? Because the hard growth you had, you know, you lost your mother at a young age. And did it inform this in some way?

MCCRANEY: Of course. But I think again, our friendship — I mean one of the things that you touched on I think is really relevant is the bond that Dre and I have. I mean Dre is an incredible actor and — but also people don’t know this, was an incredible athlete. And when you’re an athlete and you’re one of the big gifted kids in your community, you’re often told that like, “Oh, you have the talent and the keys to go elsewhere and make money and go away from here.” And then again like we’ve just been talking about, we get to this place and we recognize that there’s a lot that’s been told. And that the community that we want to be here with us, is it afford it this ability to be here and that the ability to give back to them is also constrained in many ways.

MARTIN: There are three consequential women’s roles in this film, the players union rep, the mom who’s also the manager of — the kind of — one of the players, maybe a chief rival of the star, and also the kind of rising star who works with your character, the agent who’s also I guess the girlfriend of one of the players sort of too. I wanted to ask about that. Was it important for you to highlight the role of women? Because again, women don’t generally play a big role in sports movies.

HOLLAND: Yes. I mean it was very important to me that we include three- dimensional women in it. Because the more we read and we did and we discovered that there are a lot of women who are involved in the professional athletics. And so we definitely wanted to make sure that we’re doing the best we can to tell to tell their stories as well.


MYRA: Thank you for trespassing.

SAM: I’m sorry. But, you know, desperate times, right.

MYRA: Hardly. Lady, you have a bright future.

SAM: You’re sure I didn’t overstep with that licensing suggestion?

MYRA: Overstep?

SAM: Mm-hmm.

MYRA: That’s exactly where we were headed if this lockout hadn’t happened. Come work for us. We could use —

SAM: Ooh. I don’t like to be used.


HOLLAND: You know before we started shooting, Zazie and I got together.

MARTIN: Zazie playing — plays the — she’s supposed to be your assistant but she’s actually kind of a co-agent with (CROSSTALK) just get real about that.

HOLLAND: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So she and I got together for lunch to talk about the script. And then Sonja and I got together. And we sort of sat down and said, well, what do you see here? Like what do you see in this woman that we have on the page and what can we add or take away that will make her feel fully realized for you? And so I think that spirit of openness is something that we have with each other and I think that we had throughout this process. So it’s nice to see that representation.

MARTIN: I do want to talk a little bit about the fact that the environment in filmmaking in Hollywood, in the entertainment industry, is so roiled right now around so many of these issues around race and opportunity, around the way women are treated, the MeToo Movement. The LGBTQ community is speaking up particularly in the wake of the whole Kevin Hart thing with the Oscars and saying, you know what, we have something to say about how we’re depicted and represented. And as artists, I’m wondering, does this moment feel fertile or fraught?

MCCRANEY: I will say this. It feels like a time for community. I mean a lot of people are like, well, why a basketball film? Why a basketball film? Because one of my best friends felt really important and then made me see how really important it was. And community, to me, is the way — is how I’ve always wanted to create and make art. I’m really interested in working with my people and creating the stories that we need for our own nourishment right now.

MARTIN: Andre, what about you?

HOLLAND: It was fertile to me. It feels like there’s — there’s a window that’s open now and more and more people are going through it. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in a place where I felt completely just free to sort of do whatever I wanted to do. You know what I mean? I’ve always been aware of the pitfalls and I think maybe that’s a part of — I think that’s a version of vulnerability that we understand.

MARTIN: Well, Andre Holland, Tarell Alvin McCraney, thank you both so much for talking with us.

MCCRANEY: Thank you.

HOLLAND: Thank you for having us.

MCCRANEY: Thank you for having us.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks about climate change with Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington; Anna Taylor, an environmental youth activist; and James Balog, an environmental photographer. Michel Martin speaks with Tarell Alvin McCraney & Andre Holland, the screenwriter and executive producer of “High Flying Bird.”