Hollywood's Invisible Black Women Characters
Quickly, so we can get this out of the way. Sleight is a 2016 sci-fi/drama film, directed by J.D. Dillard, starring Jacob Latimore as Bo, a street magician who doubles as a drug dealer. The movie his quest to use street smarts and real magic to raise himself and his younger sister, for whom he is the primary caretaker, out of poverty. Plenty of genre-subversion, old themes done in a new way, etc. That’s not why we’re here.
The arc of the movie is typical. Boy has troubled life, and dreams of grandiose, but gets by with what he has. Boy meets girl. Insert plot conflict. Boy hides troubled life and plot conflict from girl as his problems grow to an unreasonable scale. Boy tells girl about problems, she holds him down, he figures out a way to overcome problems and troubles, thwarts bad guy, they all live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, something else in this movie is typical of popular culture portrayals of black life. I’ve had to grapple with the possibility that maybe it hurts so much because art is imitating life in a sense. Georgi (Sasheer Zamata, SNL) is the neighbor of Bo. She’s a black woman who appears to be near college age, as evidenced by her wardrobe and accessories, and her initial exchange with Bo that we see, which comes within the first ten minutes of the movie. Bo has spent all day doing magic tricks for money and is now heading to his “night job,” and needs someone to watch his elementary school aged sister, Tina. Although Georgi appears to be returning from a night class herself, she obliges Bo happily, and enthusiastically prepares to spend the night caring for Tina.
This is our introduction to Georgi. At the right side of the spectrum, a true and dedicated friend, on the other side, an accessory. A prop to ensure that where Bo lacks, Tina won’t suffer. A stand-in mother and role model, the only one around for a young black girl. But she receives so very little love, and it's deeply troubling.
Almost every scene in the movie that takes place in Bo and Tina’s home, Georgi is there caring for Tina. It evoked images of the Mammy stock character of old, in my eyes. We know so very little about her, and although she is generally appreciated, we never see scene in which she is given love, or where the effort she puts into Bo and Tina is reciprocated to her. To add insult to injury, when Bo meets a love interest, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), and starts to display love and consideration, she is a white woman. Now, this isn’t to say he can’t and shouldn’t love who he wants to, but why is the love, agape and otherwise, for this interest so pronounced, and thus the lack thereof for Georgi that much more apparent?
Clearly, Georgi cares about both Bo and Tina on a level deeper than neighborly friendship. The most crushing line in the movie, to me, is right before Bo leaves to enact a plan to steal tens of thousands of dollars from another drug dealer to pay down a debt and leave the drug game once and for all. Georgi tells him,
“Maybe this isn’t my place to say...but I’m going to tell you because there is nobody else here to say it...I don’t think you should do this.”
He does it anyway, gets robbed and beat up, and has to start his plan from scratch. I don’t know much about J.D. Dillard as a director, but I find it hard to overlook the fact that that dialogue, coming from Georgi, especially when Bo has begun dating Holly, but Holly isn’t there, was very deliberate. The line because there is nobody else here to say it sounded so pointed to me. It wasn’t referencing Bo and Tina’s parents, who have passed and couldn’t possibly be there. It’s referencing Holly, someone that could be there but isn’t. It wasn’t overstated, but I caught vibes that Georgi had for Bo and maybe even a little jealousy of him and Holly, and rightly so. If this line was intentional and deliberate in that way, what comment is Dillard making about how we, as black men, value the word, opinion, loyalty, and guidance of black women? When Bo comes back from being beat up, Holly sees his face, and he has to spill the beans. She sticks by him the entire time and is supportive of him “making it out.” Their love grows stronger. Georgi’s cautionary comments were never acknowledged. We never see her thanked.
Sasheer Zamata plays the hell out of the small role she earned. But I wonder if its smallness is the very thing that makes it a big deal. We have seen countless other instances of black prop characters in various movies. A black face here or there, to promote diversity, but not to the point of giving them agency. The Georgi case is not the sole example of such a dynamic, but it is a unique and troubling concept that I believe deserves to be addressed in Hollywood and in our own personal lives each day. We all build and break each other.