Gritty Washington provides backdrop for rap in 'Slam' WashingReview: Documentary style and promising new actors lend authenticity to this story of street poetry.

October 23, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Slam," Marc Levin's highly charged feature debut starring a raft of extraordinarily promising newcomers, wants filmgoers to believe that art can actually change the world. And, by the end of this swiftly paced, often electrifying movie, they may well believe that it can.

Set in a southeast Washington neighborhood and filmed with a gritty, cinema verite style, "Slam" traces the exploits of one Raymond Joshua (Saul Williams), a good kid and a gifted rap poet who just happens to deal a little dope to keep himself in pens and paper.

After a drug buy gone bad, Ray is arrested and put into the spin cycle of Washington's criminal justice system, a terrifying maze of tough guards, tougher inmates and dizzyingly shifting loyalties.

Ray is befriended by a gang leader named Hopha (Bonz Malone) who reigns over the jail with pasha-like authority, and he also makes the acquaintance of a pretty poetry teacher, Lauren (Sonja Sohn), during one of her self-expression workshops.

Ray gets out on bail, but he still must decide whether to cop a plea and serve his time or plead not guilty and face an even stiffer sentence if he loses. Although Ray insists on seeing himself as a victim -- of poverty, racism, the streets -- Lauren tries to make him take responsibility for his own actions. "You can be free anytime you want," she tells him at one point. "You just have to stop the cycle."

Director Levin, best known for his non-fiction films about the CIA and gang warfare, brings a documentarian's sense of urgency and authenticity to "Slam," which he filmed on the streets of Washington and in the city's prison. (The film's honest feel is no doubt also due to its co-writer, Prison Life editor Richard Stratton.)

Most galvanizing are the sequences in which Ray and others read their poems, which erupt into powerful anthems of despair and hope, as well as humor. (Two hilarious high points: a prisoner's poem that begins, "I shot three [people] and I don't know why" and a poetry slammer's ode to ice cream.)

Levin has assembled a remarkable cast of first-time actors for his enterprise. Williams, who is an award-winning poet and wrote the verse he delivers in the film, is compellingly watchable as the gentle, gangly Ray. And Source columnist Bonz Malone, in a startling debut, almost steals the movie as the idiosyncratically soft-spoken gang leader. Sohn, another accomplished poet, is less sure of herself, but once she gains momentum she delivers a potent performance.

There are missteps along the way. Levin's use of the Washington Monument motif starts out subtle -- he photographs the supreme white phallic symbol through the barbed wire of the city jail -- and becomes increasingly heavy-handed by the movie's ambiguous conclusion. And for risible hypocrisy it will be hard to beat Mayor Marion Barry as a judge lamenting how drugs have destroyed the black community.

(Filmgoers suffering from profanity fatigue and language-sensitive parents should also be warned that they will find no relief here.)

Still, "Slam," which won awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals this year, bristles with the energy and conviction that is sorely lacking in too many other "youth-oriented" movies today. Even if it turns out that art can't change the world, "Slam" testifies to its power to reflect it with fresh vibrancy and relevance.

'Slam'

Starring Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone

Directed by Marc Levin

Rated R (pervasive language, a sex scene and brief violence)

Running time 100 minutes

Released by Trimark Pictures

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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