A superhero is nothing without an origin story. Whether you’re a rich orphan (Batman, Iron Man) or the product of some freak experiment gone wrong (Spider-Man, Hulk), almost all of our favorite superheroes possess some kind of gift (whether they wanted it or not).
It’s rare to see a superhero create their own superpowers through sheer hard work and a little hustling. But one underrated movie streaming on Netflix breaks the mold with its story of a drug-dealing street magician who truly earns his superhero status.
Sleight is a 2016 sci-fi crime drama written and directed by JD Dillard (who went on to write and direct Sweetheart). It follows Bo, a young Black teen who lost his mother just when he won a scholarship to follow his academic passions. Left the sole guardian of his sister Tina, he turns to street magic and drug dealing to pay the bills and secure a better life.
But this isn’t just your regular street magic. Some of it, like the elaborate card tricks, can be explained as simple sleight of hand. But others, like levitating the ring of his future love interest Holly, aren’t as easily dismissed. Bo is hiding a secret.
We get a clue as to what this secret could be when Bo is shown getting ready for bed. He cleans a festering, portal-like wound on his upper arm and adjusts a device with batteries. It’s unclear what this device is, but it’s clear it’s granting Bo the Magneto-like ability to manipulate metal, enough to impress the public into leaving big tips.
But while he’s developing superpowers, his problems as a drug dealer are all too real. His supplier Angelo, played deviously by eternal good guy Dulé Hill, shows his dark side when a rival kingpin moves into town. Bo decides now is the time to make his big move to secure a better life for him and his sister. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
Writer/director JD Dillard kept Bo’s superpowers small-scale for a very practical reason — money.
“What is a power that is not gonna be insanely expensive?” he told Slash Film in 2017. “He can’t float, he can’t fly, he can’t do these other things, he’s not gonna be able to glow, so telekinesis, cool, yeah, we can hang things from strings and remove the strings in post.”
Sleight isn’t your average superhero film, and not just because of the simple, home-grown powers. The world Bo lives in is one of betrayal, but ultimately everyone is trying to find their own way through life. When Bo steals from his friend, he’s not doing it out of selfishness, he’s doing it out of love for his sister and her future.
Even the villain of Sleight is somewhat sympathetic. “You can watch the movie through Angelo’s point of view, and he really doesn’t do anything wrong,” Dillard told Black Girl Nerds in an interview. “He’s a respectful dude, he asks people to give him a heads-up, to help him out, tells them he wants them to do one thing and not the other, and everyone betrays him.”
Whether you need a break from flashy superheroes before Marvel returns with Loki or you just want to see what’s possible for a low-budget sci-fi crime thriller with a lot of ambition, Sleight is the perfect movie night pick. It proves you don’t need a million dollars to make a gripping sci-fi film, and you don’t need to be born Tony Stark to mod yourself into a superhero. Apparently, all you need is a little know-how and a lot of batteries. The street magic skills? Those are just for fun.
Sleight is now streaming on Netflix.