While on a steamy Los Angeles film set, the script called for actor Jacob Latimore to make objects levitate. He could hear director J.D. Dillard yelling at him to “push harder!”
Magic is certainly easier to do with the help of high-tech camera illusions and fancy editing techniques, but as lead character Bo, an 18-year-old street magician, Latimore isn’t playing the kind of tricks that are only for kids.
In Sleight, an indie hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Bo uses his magical talent to support himself and his younger sister, Tina, portrayed by Storm Reid (12 Years a Slave) after their mother’s death. To keep cash flowing, Bo also sells drugs to college kids for Angelo, a local dealer played by Dulé Hill (The West Wing, Psych). But when he finds himself at odds with Angelo and his sister is kidnapped, he takes his sleight-of-hand skills to a new level to save her.
Part urban action, sci-fi thriller and superhero origin story, Sleight is Dillard’s feature-film directorial debut. He and writing partner Alex Theurer found the inspiration for the film literally at Dillard’s fingertips. “I’ve been doing magic since I was a kid. We wanted to combine crime and magic. Both involve deceit, savviness and street smarts. We also thought about what we could do on a budget, realistically.”
With a budget of less than $1 million, shooting took place over just 16 days and provided Latimore with an opportunity to tap into a childhood desire. “Sleight was a brand-new experience for me,” he says. “I wanted the challenge, and my inner kid wanted to be a part of the fantasy, to be able to move things around with magic.”
To help Latimore get comfortable with the cards, Dillard linked him up with Zach Mueller and others from the LA cardistry scene. “We wanted to hone in on that subculture, because in real life, these guys would’ve been Bo’s friends.” Cardistry, a close cousin to magic, is a performance art involving elaborate flourishes with a deck of cards.
The character of Bo was especially appealing to Latimore. “It’s really dope that Bo has this relationship with his sister. He’s the man of the house. He’s smart, and he has a hustle. We think of superheroes flying, but I want people to be able to relate to Bo as someone who just really wanted to protect his family.”
Dillard agrees. “I’ve never had to sell drugs to put a roof over my head. But I understand having to put your passions aside to keep a roof over your head. You learn to keep the things you care about protected. That’s part of growing up.”
Dillard notes that Sleight is a departure from the typical urban film genre. “Bo is good in math and science. He also has a passion for art, for magic. The Black kid in the hoodie has been both victimized and vilified. We wanted to take that image and make it a heroic image.”
And where there’s a hero, there’s a villain. Hill was immediately attracted to the character of Angelo and the overall concept of the film.
“As an actor, I’m always trying to stretch and challenge myself to do something different,” he says. “The street magician idea really piqued my interest. Cats who make us say, ‘That joint is crazy’ [and] the idea of [Bo] finding himself [in] way too deep and having to use his skills to get out. [Sleight] will be an enjoyable ride.”
Hill adds, “I love working with my brothers and sisters. We’re a creative bunch of people, and if given the opportunity, we can tell all kinds of stories. We take something familiar—bad guys, drug dealing—and we flip it. We take it in a different direction.”
The film also stars Seychelle Gabriel (Falling Skies), Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live) and Cameron Esposito (Mother’s Day).
Sleight opens in limited release April 28.