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SLAM(director/writer: Marc Levin; screenwriters: Saul Williams/Sonja Sohn/Richard Stratton; cinematographer: Marc Benjamin; editor: Emir Lewis; cast: Saul Williams (Ray Joshua), Sonja Sohn (Lauren Bell), Bonz Malone (Hopha); Runtime: 103; Trimark Pictures; 1998)
“This film can be valued for the energy it spends on its performances.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A film that intensely takes into account the low quality of life for the poor blacks in the inner city of Washington, D.C., where killings and drugs are commonplace. Slam has the feel of a documentary film as it traces the story of a young rapper and small-time marijuana drug dealer, Ray (Saul), who gets caught with the stuff while running away when his friend gets shot. He is faced with the decision of ratting out others and going free, or copping a guilty plea and getting two years, or of taking the case to court and if convicted getting a ten-year sentence.

In jail, Ray uses his slam poetry (a combination of rap, hip-hop, and expressive non-traditional poetry) to save himself from being set upon, as he discovers that freedom is in the mind of the beholder. Jail is a perplexing place for this gentle soul, as he is bedazzled by the inhumanity and injustice of it.

Ray is noticed by an attractive, sensitive prison English teacher, a reformed addict and prostitute, Lauren (Sonja), who starts a relationship with him, intrigued by his poetic ability and the desperation of his situation. These two non-professional actors give this film the fiery performance it sorely needs.

When Ray is bailed out, he meets Sonja at her home and realizes that he has entered a new world, where the practice of non-violence through his poetry is the best way out of his situation. The highlights of the film come from the strong performance poetry readings by the actual poets. Their poems are innovative, and have a more powerful feel than the liberal preachiness of the film does.

What works against the film is the contrast of how real and menacing the authentic prison scenes looked and of how artificial the message of non-violence is. The message is delivered by those who lived their entire life in violence and are suddenly converted by one slam poem into changing their ways. It does give the film an uplifting message, but it was not believable in the context of this story.

This film can be valued for its energetic performances, the sharpness of its poetry, and the clarity of its cinematography. There is hope for Ray, as he tries to survive and establish his art and self-identity. There is, also, hope that this film can have a positive effect on the youngsters in its audience. But, it should be noted, this is by no means cutting-edge filmmaking.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”