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Slam

Review by Eddie Cockrell
       
Posted 30 October 1998

  Directed by Marc Levin

Starring Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone,
Beau Sia, and Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr.

Written by Marc Levin, Bonz Malone,
Sonja Sohn, Richard Stratton, and Saul Williams

Winner of a clutch of high-profile film festival awards -- including the top award at Sundance this year and two prizes at Cannes -- Slam comes to theaters with just about the best pedigree an American independent film can have in a marketplace currently crowded, if not glutted, with such fare. And in some ways, the movie delivers: documentarian Marc Levin's dramatic directorial debut is smooth yet harrowing, and Saul Williams gives a soulful, appealingly mysterious performance in the lead role. Yet the whole is less than the sum of its parts, as Slam (the dual-meaning title refers both to jail -- the slammer -- and the loud, fast and intricate spoken word performances currently the rage in clubs) is too dependent on the kinetic urban poetry of its protagonist to propel itself over sketchy characters, leaving the final impression that of an emotional movie-going experience without much core emotion.

A low-level weed mule with a true gift for words, the quiet and slightly built Raymond Joshua (Williams) inevitably ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sent to the notorious Washington, D.C. jail after being arrested for marijuana possession at the scene of a shooting in the Southeast section of the city, he survives through an uneasy alliance with philosophical faction leader Hopha (rapper Bonz Malone) and his own innate ability. Ray also catches the attention of poetry teacher Lauren Bell (poet Sonja Sohn), and when he is released they begin a tentative relationship that results in Ray giving a triumphant reading of his work at a poetry slam in a club along the newly-revitalized U Street corridor in Northwest D.C.

Like the unique view of the Washington skyline from the roof of the D.C. Jail it affords, Slam feels both new and authentic, a sensation heightened by the knowledge that many of the inmates and guards played themselves in the film (Levin has confessed that the story was originally conceived with New York's Riker's Island in mind -- a location which would, at the very least, have provided a more racially diverse mix than the almost entirely black faces here, and thus modified the focus of the entire story). These scenes are the best in the film, with the explosive menace of the lockup defused by Ray's bravura, impromptu performance of a poem he's seen writing on a legal pad as prison life swirls around him. Unfortunately, the movie loses much of its focus and propulsion when Ray is released, as his relationship with Lauren quickly devolves into petty squabbling that results in a dreadfully overlong and seemingly improvised sequence of emotion and recrimination in an alley (their confrontation is even interrupted at one point by a bicyclist who pedals nonchalantly between them). Scenes fleshing out their stormy courtship are desperately needed, as is connective tissue linking Ray's talent with his effect on the warring factions around him.

Williams brings a vulnerable passivity to Ray that helps an audience navigate the menacing surroundings, while Sohn is fierce as Lauren and Malone distinctive as the shrewd Hopha. Recording artist Beau Sia has a cryptic but memorable cameo early on as an enraged Asian chained alongside Ray in a prison bus. The presence of soon-to-be-ex-Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr. as the judge who sentences Ray ("these drugs are just killing our community," he preaches with a straight face) is both inspired and annoying, especially for moviegoers who've endured his exasperating, event-filled reign in city politics.

Technically, the film benefits immensely from the fluid, nervous camerawork of Marc Benjamin and a kinetic score by DJ Spooky (Paul Miller).

With one wire service writer speculating on Williams' long-shot Oscar nomination for best actor Slam is clearly touching a nerve as stimulating, even thrilling, you-are-there cinema. But in gambling on the mythic elements of the lead character at the expense of dramatic structure, Slam ends up being less about social injustice than a rare textbook case of a movie that cries out to be about 30 minutes longer.


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