We idolize the larger-than-life figures from the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. As our world continues to crumble around us, we rush in droves to see these superheroes on the big screen, perhaps to escape the current predicaments of our own lives or maybe even with the naïve hope that someone will eventually come forward to save us all.
These studio spectacles, no matter how epic or robust, remain on a level of fantasy that we could never hope to attain in real life. But, what if you have to be your own superhero? What if it was solely up to you to create your own magic and save yourself? In J.D. Dillard’s directorial debut “Sleight,” we meet Bo (Jacob Latimore), a twenty-something Angelino left to care for his younger sister Tina (“A Wrinkle In Time’s” Storm Reid) after their mother’s death. Forced to walk away from his engineering scholarship, Bo makes ends meet by delighting crowds with his captivating and astonishing magic tricks during the day, and by selling drugs at night for the charismatic but sinister drug kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill in a career shifting role).
Drug running as we all know is a very dangerous game. Bo’s world turns on its head when Angelo decides to promote him into the position of protégée. Hill shines here as the ruthless and emotionally even Angelo whose diabolical and violent nature comes thrashing out when you least expect it. As his responsibilities begin closing in on him, Bo realizes that there is only so much magic that he can create before he stops being able to slip away unscathed. Latimore’s enthralling performance recalls Tristian “Mack” Wilds’ Michael Lee in HBO’s “The Wire.”
Shot on an indie budget in just over two weeks while Dillard was still working a full-time job, “Sleight” is certainly a standout in a rather overcrowded genre. Still, it doesn’t come together completely seamlessly. Bo’s love interest Holly, played by the refreshing Seychelle Gabriel doesn’t quite get the fully fleshed out back-story that she deserved. Instead, she’s regulated to Bo’s helpmate making her an all too convenient stand-in mother figure from Tina. Likewise, Bo’s neighbor and voice of reason, Georgi, “Saturday Night Live’s” Sasheer Zamata isn’t given nearly the amount of screen time that she deserves.
Interestingly enough, though 90% of the “Sleight” cast is Black, Bo’s Blackness is never explored (save for the tense few minutes he finds himself hemmed up by the LAPD). Admittedly, some viewers may find this disappointing especially because Dillard’s film flips the overwhelmingly white genre on its head. Personally, I found it refreshing. This is Bo’s world, and though his Blackness is an innate part of who he is, it is not the focal point in his life at this particular moment. That is not to say that it could not be explored if a follow-up feature was to be green lit. Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated Marvel film “Black Panther” will certainly be a celebration of how Blackness can inform the superhero genre, but I’m not convinced Dillard’s has to do the same.
And yet, perhaps the most intriguing aspect about “Sleight” is the force behind Bo’s magical powers. I won’t be so cruel as to spoil anything, but you should recall that he gave up an engineering scholarship. Though we get a hint of what’s happening in the film’s earlier scenes, it’s not fully fleshed out until just before the film’s climax. I will say, it’s like a remix between Tony Stark aka Iron Man and his knack for gadgets and Magneto’s telekinesis in “X-Men.” Those who’ve studied and explored STEM academics will surely get a kick out of this, while the rest us will at least get some fantastic visuals.
“Sleight” is a captivating slow burning thriller and brilliant origin story. The film will have you rethinking everything you know about superheroes and how films in the genre are made. Most importantly, the film gets representation right, not just in terms of superheroes, but also with regards to Black faces in technology and engineering which let’s be real, is way more attainable than Batmobiles, vibranium metal shields, or even Bracelets of Submission. With “Sleight,” Dillard has more than a bit of magic on his hands.
“Sleight” hits theaters Friday, April 28, 2017.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami