A scene featuring Jamero Umber (Hurtt-Dunkley) at Back Court Day as he runs into rival basketball player Erick Scott
As much as Justin Hurtt-Dunkley loves to act, it doesn’t hurt that he’s equally skilled at soaring to the hoop. Ths Newark native was just the person acclaimed film director Steven Soderbergh was looking for when he cast for roles in his recently released film High Flying Bird, which the filmmaker shot entirely on an iPhone.
Soderbergh is the Academy Award-winning director of films including Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight, Choir Boy [currently on Broadway]), High Flying Bird turns a basketball lockout on its head, as one clever, fast-talking sports agent convinces a pair of rookie basketball players to participate in a stunt – a one-on-one grudge match, which of course goes viral – that’s meant to send a message to owners that the game of basketball really belongs to the players.
Hurtt-Dunkley stars as one of those basketball players.
Justin Hurtt-Dunkley (left) with Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney at a special screening in New York on February 07, 2019. Photo by Julie Cunnah.
The New York Times calls the film “an exhilarating and argumentative caper,” adding that McCraney’s script “is quite simply an extraordinary piece of writing.” Rolling Stone Magazine calls the film a “must see.”
Hurtt-Dunkley will appear at a special free screening of High Flying Bird this Friday, April 26 at Theatre N in Wilmington. We caught up with the actor/producer to find out how he landed this plum role and what part growing up in Delaware had on his career path.
Town Square Delaware: What did it mean to you to be involved in a film – with such a high profile director – about the popular sport of basketball? Did you grow up playing the sport?
Getting the role in a Steven Soderbergh film was a major accomplishment for me. He is one of my favorite directors, he is one of the greats. So I was ecstatic when I got the call that I would be working with him. The entire experience was surreal to be on set watching him work as well as being among the other talent.
I have always loved basketball. I played in high school and a little in college. I currently live in Brooklyn, New York, and you can catch me playing for fun at local parks and gyms. I still have a lot of love for the sport.
TSD: What sparked your interest in acting?
I fell in love with acting at a young age watching movies. I remember reenacting scenes for my mother and family, and they seemed to get a kick out of my enthusiasm and my joy for acting.
My mother started me in the industry at a young age — taking me for headshots and sending them out to agents. I was signed with an agent in New York who pitched me for commercials, and the agent later moved me to industrials, film, and tv. When I was younger, I loved the emotions television and movies could spark among viewers, how those media could make one sad, happy, scared, inspired all in one sitting.
I feel like acting is a hack on life. You normally live one life. Acting gives you the opportunity to live 1,000 lives, taking a break from your regular schedule and exploring becoming someone else from a different walk of life.
TSD: Just how good did you have to be at basketball to land the role of Jamero Umber? What were the producers looking for in the character of Jamero?
This film was cast by Carmen Cuba out of Los Angeles, and I love her work. I sent her an audition tape, performed reading from the film and supplied her with a separate clip of me playing basketball.
Actors Justin Hurtt-Dunkley (left) and Melvin Gregg playing one on one in High Flying Bird. The entire film is shot on an iPhone.
The role did require the actor to have some basketball skill because there is a quick game in the script. In the film, you see Jamero Umber (that’s the name of my role) and Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg) playing one-on-one, and it cuts off after a play and a half. We did actually shoot a couple more plays that day that were in the original screenplay, but the director decided to edit the one-on-one for dramatic effect, and funny enough, I think it really adds to the storyline in an effective way. It’s a bit more suspenseful.
Jamero is a kid just ready to do what he was born to do and that’s play ball. He is eager for the lockout to end to shine his light on the game he loves. He is no stranger to the sports industry being that his brother is in the NFL and he has a bull Momager (his mom), who keeps him intact.
TSD: Why do you say High Flying Bird isn’t really a sports movie?
High Flying Bird is not your typical basketball film as it does not have a focus on basketball gameplay. The film is much more a story about the politics of the sport and the relationship of professional black athletes to managers and owners and their profound influence on the game.
TSD: What are your opinions of screenwriter Tarell Alvin-McCraney and the clever, nuanced way he melded his notions of basketball, business and the politics of the sport?
Tarell Alvin McCraney is another legend – just an unbelievably exceptional playwright. His style of storytelling is so unique, natural, and authentic. He is a beast. When I learned Tarell was the writer on this project, it made the booking even more exciting. It was as if the film already had a stellar line-up.
The film focuses on the NBA and these rookie players, and there is a lockout and they don’t have any money. Black athletes are looked at as commodities as the owners seemingly remain in complete control of the game. But the agent is trying to get the players to take over the game and ownership of their talent.
Alvin-McCraney came up with a very cool idea that players can play it one-on-one or three-on-three with streaming rights.
A sports reporter interviews Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) and Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), who plays his mother, about the Jamero Umber brand after playing the one on one game with rival/teammate Erick Scott and how he is handling the lockout
TSD: What does it say about a director who can play off of the world’s obsession with smartphones and actually use an iPhone to film this movie? Did the quality of images suffer at all?
Soderbergh told us he found it easy and liberating to shoot using an iPhone. He had a couple of them all set up on location.
Being filmed on an iPhone was such a different experience. But I believe was great for the tone of the film and the objective Soderbergh wanted to convey. We are so used to looking at video playback from an iPhone that it may feel even more natural and familiar to the viewer as a bystander. I know it did for me.
TSD: Did you do any theatre in middle or high school?
I attended Newark Charter School and Kirk Middle School and graduated from Newark High School (2010), but I didn’t perform on stage at any of those schools. When I finished with classes in school, I would make trips to New York and Philadelphia to study with different coaches and participate in workshops. I studied under Mike Lemon in his studios in Philadelphia and Shiek Mahmud-Bey in New York at the time.
Hurtt-Dunkley graduated from Long Island University in 2015 and pursued acting while in college.
Actor Justin Hurtt-Dunkley at the premiere of High Flying Bird at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Feb. 7, 2019. Photo by Julie Cunnah.
TSD: Fondest memories of Delaware?
Of course, some of my favorite food comes to mind. I remember Delaware’s Walts Chicken and Grottos pizza – both delicious. My mother also had me participate in every youth performance program she heard of, from Jack and Jill of America, the Christina Cultural Arts Center, Bethel A.M.E’s YPD, Thursday’s club, Black Achievers at the Walnut YMCA, The Achievers program by Kappa Alpha Psi, and Boys & Girls Club.
I was also a lifeguard for the city of parks and recreation for Browns Pool, William Hicks, South Bridge. I have so many terrific memories of growing up in Wilmington, really stretching myself outside of school, and enjoying wonderful times with family and friends.
Director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, and the cast of High Flying Bird, including Justin Hurtt-Dunkley (third from left)
About the Contributor
The managing editor of TownSquareDelaware.com, Christy Fleming also supports a variety of non-profit initiatives in Delaware. Her background includes positions in public relations, advertising and journalism.