Hollywood’s long and complicated history in portraying people of color as mystical creatures, particularly African-American males, comes to a head in newcomer J.D. Dillard’s ambitious Sleight. But this time out, audiences are treated to masterful nuance in what is already the summer’s most groundbreaking superhero movie.
Be it Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, or Scatman Crothers in The Shining, black advisers with mystic powers have been common cogs in big science fiction movies. But Sleight, now in theaters, filters its black power back into the hands of its protagonist and unfurls it in a unique story that American audiences simply haven’t seen told on-screen.
It’s why critics like USA Today‘s Brian Truitt have noted that this film, which enjoys a 74 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, features “the young black superhero that pop culture doesn’t have and needs.” The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager called it the “first great black superhero movie.”
The film is about young Bo (Jacob Latimore, in a significant star turn) as a talented high school graduate forced into adulthood following the deaths of his parents, rejecting a valuable scholarship to care for his sister. Captivating sleight-of-hand street magician by day, Bo is a drug dealer by night, unknowingly latching himself to his supplier, Angelo (Dule Hill). Bo finds himself in debt with Angelo, and must best his ruthless boss.
Making no bones about personal ethics, Bo sees his illegal work as just that, an unglamorous means to an end. Living hand to mouth, he’s advanced past moral dilemma.
— Showcase Cinemas US (@ShowcaseUS) April 27, 2017
Simultaneously Bo catches the eye of Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), herself a young woman in a challenging home situation. Their fast-forming relationship quickly evolves, working as an instant balance (along with his sister), eventually steeling themselves against Angelo’s money-hungry wrath. You’re treated to an impeccable climax.
In what’s basically a true-to-life superhero origin film, you’re witnessing a reconstruction of the magical negro archetype. A popular example is Will Smith in The Legend of Baggar Vance, who plays the common “colored man as appeasing God figure” trope, which is directly borrowed from Hindu text. Typically someone like Bo would be virtually trapped in the service of white heroes, be it by historical era or vocation.
Dozens of these performances color world film history, and most times the character’s agency becomes normalized as a correcting mechanism to soothe white fears by way of unknown, unquestioned supernatural powers. More importantly, the magic black character is usually legitimized only by the success of white leads.
However in Sleight, Bo’s high-risk life decisions and magic work for only himself, and those closest to him. Even when he completes a trick, it’s first for his own edification, inching closer to a perceived greatness with each reaction. The supernatural stripped away, Bo is shown self-made, with his magic given a direct origin story as an ability that comes completely out of his high intellect and ingenuity—similar to Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, who would have spent millions develop Bo’s “power.”
Interestingly enough, it’s the first voice in the film—his science teacher, on voicemail—who eventually lends his own “magic,” providing Bo with additional tools and scientific expertise to further his potential. While explaining to Bo the likely consequences of increasing his power, he never fully dissuades his former student, becoming his Alfred or Lucius Fox analog.
When the climax plays out, Dillard blesses us with seeing Bo’s seemingly mythical power in its full glory. The build up evolves naturally, and the viewer is willing to buy it because they earned it along with Bo. (You’re even given a little nugget at the end of the film.)
Bo comes out of the event emotionally spent, and physically burned and bloody, which lends to a readily identifiable reality. There’s a vicious calculus that must be wrung out, especially for young black and brown men: Self-actualization in unfair circumstances requires tremendous, even unfair sacrifice. It’s a lesson that will stick with you all summer: You must be willing to bleed for it, because you probably will anyway.