This is a great era to be a Black geek. Communities like Black Nerd Problems and Black Girl Nerds are catering to a population that has always been present but traditionally ignored within geek circles. Recent films like Dope and TV shows Atlanta are also celebrating the Black nerd (or “blerd”) and giving us a new type of hero for the 21st century: young African-Americans with high IQs, awkwardness, and a penchant for sticky situations. Sleight continues with this movement. The protagonist, Bo, is every geek’s superhero, endowed with little more than intelligence, a good dose of desperation, and, of course, STEM!
The movie beings with a camera pan through the living quarters of a working class family, settling briefly on a poster in the room of a teenage boy. It reads, “Nothing on earth can hold Houdini,” thus setting the tone for the epic to follow. Sleight is a story of traps—the tale of a young hero, Bo (Jacob Latimore, Maze Runner) trapped by both circumstances beyond his control and the shortcomings of his own judgement. Forced to forego an engineering scholarship to care for his little sister after the untimely death of their mother, Bo earns a living as street magician and drug dealer. By day, he revels in his passion, dazzling pedestrians with slight-of-hand and engineering ingenuity. There seems to be no limit to what he can and will do to pull off a trick, including altering his own body. By night, he hits street corners, night clubs, and party havens, delivering everything from Molly to cocaine for a local drug supplier. Somewhat predictably, this latter profession tightens the trap around our young hero.
B for Story Development: Writer/director J.D. Dillard sets to move audiences with gritty realism as Bo balances the drug underworld and the guardianship of his little sister Tina (Storm Reid, 12 Years a Slave). While Dillard succeeds in creating a sympathetic and complex protagonist, he fails in delivering the narrative this character deserves. There is an almost absurdity to the drama faced by Bo throughout the film. The drug dealers are one-dimensional caricatures led by local kingpin Angelo, played by Dulé Hill—commonly known for his role as the comedic sidekick in USA Network’s Psych. I found it almost impossible to take Hill seriously as a psychopathic drug boss manipulating the life of our young protagonist (he’s that silly dude from Psych!). The violence and gore are also completely exaggerated (even for a WWE Studios production) in an overt and meaningless attempt to shock and awe without adding any meaningful value to the narrative. In short, the film takes itself too seriously, tries too hard, and does way too much.
The saving grace of this film is Latimore’s performance as Bo. He brings such sincerity to the role the almost compensates for the absurdity of the drama. I was immediately invested in Bo’s success and followed his journey (though ridiculous at times) with wide eyes and a racing pulse. But while Bo’s motivations are clear, many of his choices caused me to question his morality, and sadly those questions are never answered. The scale between victimized good guy and morally corrupt rogue tips quite often throughout the film as there seems to be nothing Bo won’t do to save himself and his family. By the end of the film, I am left to wonder, “is Bo really a hero?” Perhaps that was the intent and it’s left me wanting more …
D for Strong Female Characters: Sleight is unapologetically a story about malehood. There are just two prominent female characters: Bo’s girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel, Fallen Skies) and his next door neighbor, Georgi (Sasheer Zamata, Deidre and Lany Rob a Train). While we are given a bit of backstory into Holly’s violent home life and college aspirations, both Holly and Georgi have little agency aside from supporting Bo and helping to babysit Tina. The rest of the female characters are companions to the drug dealers or club-going backdrops.
There is also a startlingly lack of Black women in the film, which is surprising in a film about a young African-American who lives in a Black community. Georgi is the sole Black female character who is desexualized into the platonic “buddy” (a common racial trope) and even says at one point, “I’ll never find a man.” We know nothing else about Georgi other than she’s single and always willing to watch Tina when she gets home from work. Despite her loyalty to Bo, clearly Georgi is never a viable option for love interest. The desexualization and/or erasure of Black women is quite common in Hollywood, but disappointing from a Black director.
C+ for the Inclusion and Development of POC: Sleight boasts a diverse cast including a Black protagonist and supporting characters, but few extend beyond the common caricature of drug dealer and gangster. At no point does the film offer even a glimpse into their humanity. Bo is the only character with complexity and nuance. And because Bo is such an amazing character, I have to give Sleight a C+ for POC inclusion and development, with the noted caveat that he is the ONLY one, in a movie filled with POC.
Overall Score C+: Despite the aforementioned flaws, Sleight is a decent start for writer/director Dillard. It is definitely worth the movie fare (or a Netflix watch), if only to celebrate the Black geek and enjoy a very different kind of superhero origin story. While it’s easy to dissect the issues with Sleight, in its entirety it really is a wild ride and a fun watch. I enjoyed it and if you’re able to turn off socio-political critique, suspend disbelief, and simply escape, you might enjoy it too.