That’s “slam” as in “poetry slam” but it’s also “slam” as in “the slammer,” and this 1998 film that won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the award for Best first feature) and the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic film at Sundance invests considerable energy in both of those locales. Slam tells the story of Ray Joshua (played by the charismatic Saul Williams), a resident of the projects near Washington D.C. who writes rhymes in his spare time but has no specific aspiration to do anything more than write and remain a low-level drug dealer to make ends meet.
Finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, he winds up going to jail, accused of murder, and here the film takes off. Where prior to this we’ve seen him as a gentle soul in a rough area – several early scenes find him reciting his poetry to the neighborhood children and encouraging them to create their own work – he’s suddenly thrown into a very hard situation. As he’s being processed he quickly gets the lowdown on the harsh realities of prison life as he’s brought into the system. The lawyer assigned to his case lays out the options – none of them remotely fair – and sums up his situation with the brutal, direct lines “you’re a victim, brother. You’re black, you’re young, you come from Southeast, you’re in the inner city. You don’t have a chance.” This scene is followed immediately by a similar one with a prison guard laying out statistics of incarcerated black men in the D.C. area and bluntly telling him that he has no friends inside and that he will stay alive only if he keeps his head down and minds his own business. But it’s not all hopeless – after a time negotiating the clutches of rival prison gangs he finds that his words help him out of a sticky situation and into a writing class taught by Lauren Bell (played by Sonja Sohn), who recognizes his talent and encourages him, when he is released, to seek out the slam poetry scene where she’s found her own shot of redemption.
After a deus ex machina gets Ray back on the streets, he spends time with Bell, learning about her own hard past and how she’s used it as material for her present as a teacher and poet and helped vault herself out of the traps in which she had found herself. He’s inspired by her scene and her story – and her. And as the film works toward its climactic poetry reading – how often can you say that this is where the dramatic thrust of a film is pointed? – it dances around the complications of their relationship. What happens if he ends up back in prison on the charges leveled against him? What if he doesn’t? Is she ready to engage in a serious relationship with him? It’s here that the film invests the least of its energy, perhaps because it knew that to make the relationship scenes as serious, as realistic as its prison and poetry scenes it would have to believe in them the way it does in those. And maybe it doesn’t, but it smartly avoids the inherent problems by keeping them ambiguous and offering no easy solutions, even while its optimism and belief in the power of art remain the engine that powers the film.
The film moves from one strength to another, its earnestness worn guilelessly on its sleeve as it transitions from the hard realism of the prison sequence to the documentary vibe of the later poetry slams. And Williams is magnetic throughout, both in his street/gang persona earlier and believable as a man transformed by poetry in the film’s later scenes. Director Marc Levin keeps things simple and mostly lets his actors and the script he co-wrote with Williams (and three others) do the talking – and he’s rewarded with superb performances from Williams and Sohn especially, though other characters filling out the film (many of them acquaintances of Williams through the slam scene) have their shining moments as well. The film is smart in its avoidance of easy answers, it avoids clichéd character progressions and conflicts (even if it sometimes feels less believable as a result – I doubt poetry could end inter-prison conflicts or gang warfare outside) and it knows what its strengths are and puts its energies there to create a bracing, entertaining, and even inspirational film.
- Patrick Brown