The first time we see Ray Joshua, the young black 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 "Dodge City," a teeming Washington, D.C., housing project. A moment later, though, he's surrounded by eight or nine wide-eyed kids, all clamoring for ice cream. Ray happily obliges by buying some for them from a nearby vendor, and, what's more, offers to help one of the boys with his rap lyrics.
Ray, we soon 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 murder statistic in the making. Cut loose from family (we never know if he has one), he scratches out a hazardous living in view of the major District of Columbia monuments, but he's virtually invisible to his fellow citizens -- and to himself.
Care to lay odds on him surviving his twenties?
Without prologue or pretense, filmmaker Levin throws the audience directly into Ray's world, where temptation and danger and dudes with folding money lurk on every corner, and no one gives a damn about his secret dreams. Anybody who's seen Boyz N the Hood (1991) or Menace II Society (1993) 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, in chains, on a minor drug charge that will change his life. And there we all stay for the next hour or so, locked up and stripped down. It's a rude awakening for Ray, an essentially sweet kid headed down the wrong track, and ruder still for us -- even those who've seen a hundred prison movies.
A documentarian who's made TV films about street gangs and the juvenile justice system, Levin's been around the block. So the jittery, catch-as-catch-can style he brings to his prison scenes has the urgency of news footage from a war zone without sacrificing the deliberation of art. Call it jailhouse verite if you like. It looks and feels right. Example: 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's got the kind of indoor, state-raised, caged-heat look that real 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 actual D.C. Detention Facility (known there as the D.C. Jail), using real guards and 16 inmates in pivotal roles. Will wonders never cease? 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 neo-romantic conceit -- that Art Conquers All, even prison violence -- and of a cameo appearance by Washington Mayor Marion Barry as, of all things, a district court judge. The real daring in Slam does not lie in its brutal naturalism -- we've seen that before -- but rather 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.
Shakespeare and Langston Hughes must both 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 -- any audience -- of that in 1998 is a pretty tall order. But Levin has chosen just the right actor to bring it off. On screen, the noted New York City performance poet Saul Williams embodies two Rays: The lean, cat-quick one we first meet, full of sinew and wile, knows the ways of the street; the starved-looking, ascetic Ray we come to know later, artistic and vulnerable, aspires to heaven. Even the timbre of his voice -- an uncanny aural double for the young Sidney Poitier -- suggests transcendence. 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.
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Still, Slam is something of a mixed blessing. Its jailhouse scenes are as vivid, unsparing and claustrophobic as anything you're likely to see, Williams is magnetic, and Ray's progress is heartening. But the picture is diminished by an improbable romance between its protagonist and a prison writing teacher named Lauren Bell, played by fellow slam poet 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: If there's anything you want to know about black womanhood, ghetto self-destruction, victimization versus responsibility, economic survivalism or any other subject on the face of the earth, Lauren Bell will be happy to fill you in -- at ear-splitting volume. So, apparently, will Lauren's creator, Sohn: Her verse, which she performs at the film's climactic poetry "slam," proves as bellicose and blunt as her acting.
Except for this blot, Slam is a world of wonders -- scary-smart, satisfying and sizzling with ideas. Little wonder that the audience at Sundance started applauding even before the credits rolled.
Directed by Marc Levin. With Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone.