LAFF Review: Coming of Age On a Skateboard in 'I Am Thalente'
Photo Credit: S & A

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

I Am ThalenteSo 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,


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



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