The first time we see Ray Joshua, the young hero of director Marc Levin's impressive feature debut, Slam, we get a vivid taste of the conflicting forces that rule him. His olive-drab pants, so hip-hop baggy that you could fit two rail-thin Rays inside, are stuffed with bags of weed, which he deftly dispenses to his clientele in a teeming Washington, D.C., housing project. A moment later, though, he's surrounded by eight or nine kids, all clamoring for ice cream. Ray happily obliges by buying some for them from a vendor, and, what's more, offers to help one of the boys with his rap lyrics.
Ray, we come to see, is a man of many parts: hustler, poet-in-the-rough, victim of society, loyal friend. In all likelihood he's also another statistic in the making. Cut loose from family, he scratches out a hazardous living in view of the major D.C. monuments, but he's virtually invisible to his fellow citizens--and to himself.
Without prologue or pretense, filmmaker Levin throws the audience into Ray's world, where temptation and danger lurk on every corner, and where no one gives a damn about his secret dreams. Anybody who's seen Boyz N the Hood or Menace II Society will recognize the turf. But what makes Slam radically different is that it quickly leaves the 'hood behind, along with our stock expectations: Ten minutes along, the movie's only gunshot rings out, with Ray standing dangerously nearby; three minutes after that, Levin has his hero hauled off to jail on a minor drug charge that will change his life. And there we all stay for the next hour or so.
A documentarian who has made TV films about street gangs and the juvenile justice system, Levin knows these corners and cracks. The jittery, catch-as-catch-can style he brings to his prison scenes has the urgency of news footage. It looks and feels right. When a big-deal inmate called Hopha (played by graffiti artist, ex-con, and music columnist Bonz Malone) gives young Ray the word ("Ya gonna have to fight, cuz, 'cause this is jail"), he has the kind of indoor, state-raised, caged-heat look prisoners have; once you're able to take your eyes off that, you notice the inventory of a minor merchant-king spread out on the concrete floor behind him--bent tubes of toothpaste, cigarette packs, pathetic little bags of cookies.
The value of such details is inestimable. So is the fact that Levin and the cast were able to shoot in the D.C. Detention Facility, using real guards and 16 inmates in pivotal roles. The picture took 18 days to shoot and cost just $1 million.
Its focus, of course, is Ray, a jailhouse newcomer at a crossroads. His defining moment occurs when he's about to face a beating, or worse, in the prison yard. His response? The only response available to him--he starts spouting his street poetry, a cri de coeur about racism, alienation, fear, and rage that, as if by magic, transforms him from a punk who's ripe for stabbing into the voice of a generation. No excerpts here; the stuff is all of a piece, and you should hear it for yourself.
Make what you will of this neoromantic conceit--that Art Conquers All, even prison violence. The real daring in Slam does not lie in its brutal naturalism but in its claim that self-determination grows not from macho posturing but from creative thought, that self-realization can spring whole from the spoken word.
Langston Hughes and Shakespeare must be smiling down from the afterlife: Like last year's look at creative black twentysomethings in Chicago, love jones, Slam tells the world that poetry is cool. It's not only cool, Ray comes to believe, but it's a reason for being, a reason to get out and go straight. Convincing an audience of that in 1998 is a pretty tall order, but Levin has chosen just the right actor to bring it off. Onscreen, the noted New York City performance poet Saul Williams embodies two Rays: The lean, cat-quick one we first meet knows the ways of the street; the starved-looking, ascetic Ray we come to know later, artistic and vulnerable, aspires to heaven.
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In his tortured journey from one kind of "slam"--the city jail--to another, the poetry-reading in a nightclub that transforms his destiny, we find the saga of everyone who looks and looks and eventually sees the light. Good for Ray. Good for Saul Williams too: He wrote all the pieces his poet character performs, and he is--by a wide margin--the best writer in a movie that gives us a taste of half a dozen writers.
Still, Slam is something of a mixed blessing.The picture is diminished by an improbable romance between its protagonist and a prison writing teacher named Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn). Through this unfortunate device, the film's two main screenwriters, Levin and Richard Stratton, can't help venting all the leftover concerns they've otherwise omitted from their movie. Their rhetorical pack mule is Sohn, an actress given to much melodramatic shouting and preacherly outburst.
Except for this blot, Slam is a world of wonders: scary-smart, satisfying, and sizzling with ideas.
Directed by Marc Levin. Written by Levin, Bonz Malone, Sonja Sohn, Richard Stratton, and Saul Williams; starring Williams, Sohn, and Malone. Opens Friday.