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LAFF Review: Coming of Age On a Skateboard in ‘I Am Thalente’

LAFF Review: Coming of Age On a Skateboard in 'I Am Thalente'

So he kick push
kick push kick push kick push/ coast
And away he
rolled jus’ a rebel to the world with no place to go
-Lupe Fiasco (“Kick,
Push”)

There’s a scene
in Natalie Johns’ documentary, “I am Thalente,” where South African skater
Thalente (which means “Talent” in Zulu), skateboards through a large, empty
swimming pool in Los Angeles. He dips and glides through the empty pool, almost
as if he’s flying. It’s a magical scene, both in his movements and in the way
that it’ shot- fluid and smooth. The film comes alive in these moments. In
essence, we watch Thalente’s ascent, metaphorically and physically.

The idea of
flight is set up early in the documentary when we meet Thalente Biyela through archival
footage, as a young kid in Durban, South Africa. He lives on the streets and
finds refuge in the skate parks where he perfects his skills in skateboarding.
Through interviews with him as a teenager, we learn that he escaped an abusive
home life, and was taken under the wing of caring friends and the skateboarding
community, who recognized his passion for the sport. One of those people, famed
skateboarder Tony Hawk, met Thalente as a young kid in South Africa, and was
impressed.

A
South African & US co-production, the film charts three years in the life of a teenage Thalente, and his decision to pursue skateboarding as a career. Johns
does a nice job of weaving the voices of the skateboarding community, especially
in the United States, into the film, providing insight into a sport that is
often misunderstood or seen as a teenage hobby. Here, skateboarding becomes a
complete world that Thalente comes of age in.  A world in which people – grown men, women,
teens- make a living and thrive.

When Thalente
ventures to the United States to launch a skateboarding career, he is met with an
array of new experiences that both test his commitment to the sport and spur
it. Through dynamic cinematography by fellow black skateboarder and filmmaker
Lawrence McCullum and Johns herself, we witness Thalente’s painful falls from his board, his
frustration at not mastering street skateboarding, and the joys of having his first
girlfriend, whom he meets on Instagram.

In the press
notes for the film, director Natalie Johns noted that she wanted the film to be
“forward facing,” not wanting Thalente’s backstory to overshadow the subject
matter. I appreciated this approach, but also thought that the lack of
exploration into the cultural context, particularly around the skateboarding
culture in Durban and Thalente’s existence as a black skateboarder there and in America, might’ve shortchanged the narrative.

While there’s a
plethora of interviews from his skateboarding mentors and friends in the United
States, we don’t really hear from those within the community he arose from-
fellow street kids, or even his best friend, a rising skateboarder who we are
told went down a wrong path. That wrong path, or adversity, especially when
related to street kids and those living in poverty in South Africa, is
something that shouldn’t be removed from the context of Thalente’s story.

In the end, I
enjoyed the skateboarding journey in this film. Thalente is a charismatic, and
relatable person who you want to root for because he works hard to master an
art form that he is passionate about, stumbling, smiling, and winning along the
way.

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