Ever So ‘Sleight’-ly Better

Sleight poster

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
(colloquially known as “Clarke’s Third Law”)

– Arthur C. Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” (1973 revision)

I have yet to see M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, but I’ve heard good things. I’m told that the film – along with his other recent success, The Visit – is a re-emergence of the previous potential he showed with his second and third films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, respectively. The story of the latter film will soon be covered again, as Shyamalan’s next movie will be a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split.

I’ve long been a fan of Unbreakable. I really got into its grounded, more realistic take on the superhero film; one that doesn’t even reveal it’s a superhero film until its well underway. As much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s thus far been a showcase for stories about heteronormative White dudes with powers and abilities far beyond those of normal men. Although Shyamalan’s Unbreakable still had a mostly-White cast with a Black villain (granted, said villain fulfills a more “mentor” capacity through most of the film), the villain was a wonderfully complex character created by writer/director of color (ie. the opposite of Shyamalan’s adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender).

That’s why I’m intrigued by the coincidence that a film like Sleight is released just as Unbreakable is about to get a sequel. The former feels like a would-be heir apparent to the latter. And though Sleight is far from perfect, it’s still a good example of how people of color telling popular stories doesn’t undermine the countless versions we’ve gotten from White storytellers.

Bo is the man of the house. After his mother died, it’s been only him to look after his little sister in their South Central LA home. This has forced the once-promising young scientist to put his dreams on hold. Bo often makes money one of two ways: performing as a gifted street magician for downtown LA tourists; or as a dealer for local kingpin Angelo.

When Bo’s ordered to attack one of Angelo’s rivals, the result puts Bo in a position where he’s targeted by both sides. Now, with the lives of he and his sister in danger, the secret to Bo’s most advanced “magic” may be the only thing that can save him.

As a Black man myself, I’m often overly conscious of stories involving Black people that water-down certain aspects for the sake of appealing to a wider (nay, Whiter) audience. One of the most sensitive topics is the use of the word “nigga”. Sleight purposefully avoids any and all use of the word, and it’s noticeable. I get what director/co-writer JD Dillard (also Black) was going for, but the word’s absence awkwardly sticks out like a sore thumb. As someone with a lot of relatives in LA, the idea of Black folks – especially drug dealers – not saying it is the single most blatant element of fantasy in a movie about a young would-be Tony Stark trying to rescue his little sister from those aforementioned dealers.

But then, dialogue isn’t Sleight’s strong suit. At first you might think that it’s trying to emulate the often-cheesy dialogue of comic books, but that would be too generous. Still, what the film mostly lacks natural human speech it more than makes up for with a realistic atmosphere that somehow works perfectly with its more over-the-top elements. The horrible DCEU flicks should take note: this is how a film grounds itself in a sense of realism as it still asks an audience to suspend their disbelief.

I don’t recall having seen Jacob Latimore in any film before, but he gives a nice, natural performance here. He plays the material straight, but not as a hero. Rather, he’s the reluctant protagonist who often finds himself in situations he didn’t expect. Dulé Hill seems to struggle with the film’s clunky dialogue. He also seems to have trouble pulling off being the heavy after establishing himself as “the nice guy” in most of his previous roles. The rest of the primarily-female cast – Sasheer Zamata as Aunt Georgi, Storm Reid as little sister Tina, Seychelle Gabriel as Bo’s girlfriend Holly, Cameron Esposito as Luna – all perform their roles adequately as they step in and out of scenes.

As the director of his first feature, JD Dillard shoots confidently and with a good eye for both pacing and spacing. It’s such a relief to that ignore’s Michael Bay’s asinine “shoot for the edit” and instead picks and chooses shots and cuts as if they were ingredients in a recipe. The soft-focus cinematography by Ed Wu provides for some nice visuals mercifully free of the orange/cyan colorscheme that plagues Hollywood today.

If Sleight were a comic book, it would be the intriguing-but-uneven first entry from a new talent. Hopefully Dillard will be the cinematic equivalent to Dwayne McDuffie, rather than Rob Liefeld (by which I mean Zack Snyder).

GRADE:                B

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