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'Slam': Doin' Rhyme, Doin' Time

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 1998

  Movie Critic

Saul Williams is a poet in "Slam." (Trimark)

Marc Levin
Saul Williams;
Sonja Sohn;
Bonz Malone;
Beau Sia
Running Time:
1 hour, 40 minutes
Profane language, violence and sexual suggestiveness
Ray Joshua is a through-and-through Washingtonian, but he doesn't live in that gleaming city where the movies are all set, with its prosperous population of well-dressed hustlers scurrying about the neo-Athenian monuments and pod like office buildings. He lives instead in a dangerous zone of random violence, cruelty, impoverishment and incarceration. It's called Anacostia, and it's the Washington that movies haven't got to, at least until now.

Set in D.C.'s meanest streets, "Slam," which is Ray's story, tells of a pilgrim-poet's progress. It's a remarkable piece of work, at once tough and compassionate, unblinking and dramatic, and, above all, hopeful.

Ray is not seeking escape, or even redemption. He is a seeker, though: He yearns for a state of perfect grace attainable only through the narcotic of words. He seeks the pure bliss of poetry, of torrents of images pouring from his id in an ecstasy of creation, where beauty and truth coexist. It's not your Uncle Ezra's poetry, but it has the same capacity for deliverance.

In his neighborhood, Ray (a brilliant young actor named Saul Williams) has achieved a kind of separate peace. He's clearly not a player, a crew member, he doesn't tote a Glock or do errands for the neighborhood kingpin. Rather, he's a kind of freelance Cyrano, who gives people words to say. He'll give the drug dealer a riff to try on his lady, or he'll delight a circle of kids with some magic licks yanked from his subconscious. But one night he's at hand when someone is shot; he's rousted by detectives, who find his pockets full of marijuana, and off he goes.

As a title, "Slam" has two meanings: It's the explosion of performed poetry that is the center of a cultural movement, and in whose bosom Ray at last finds his place in life, but it's also the place where they send the bad boys, and where Ray ends up. Director Marc Levin charts Ray Joshua's nervous survival of this ordeal with amazing fidelity.

A long-established documentarian, Levin has learned how, through improvisational techniques and the trust he builds on the set with his subjects, to capture the gritty, palpable feel of reality. It sounds easy enough: You just film the real thing. It's harder than it sounds. In any case, his prisoners are frightening because they are real prisoners; his jail is terrifying because it's a real jail (the movie was shot at the D.C. Jail and the Lorton Correctional Complex). The tensions inside – between Muslim prisoners and non-Muslims – are stomach-withering because they are real. (Note to self: Never, EVER let them send you to jail!)

In this place, Ray is co-opted by both sides, but uses his poetry as almost a kind of magic talisman to protect him. This is such a fundamental human reality: The power of the story has quieted fears at campfires for about a million odd years now, whether the antagonists outside of the light are saber-toothed tigers, Nazi soldiers or homeboys with shivs. And so it works in the Yard at D.C. Jail, where Ray's amazing blast of eloquence reaches out and soothes the heart of men who would kill him. That is the redemptive power of the imagination.

But the film is ultimately about coming of age. In prison, Ray meets a creative writing teacher named Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn) who recognizes and nurtures his talent. When he is released on pretrial bond, he looks her up; they connect magically, and not just through the electricity of the words. But it turns out she's got a mile-of-bad-road story that explains how she got to where she is as well, and her lesson to him isn't the pure support he thinks he wants. It's also an admonition to face reality and responsibility: You were carrying marijuana. You have to face the consequences of such a thing.

"Slam," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, slips once in a while. There's an almost campy scene where Marion Barry appears as a judge, and he utters a stern anti-drug admonition. In this town, at least, the result is a hilarity so intense it breaks your emotional contact with the movie.

In the end, "Slam" is something rare. It looks at the honest lives of people devastated by a series of pathologies – their own and society's – and it views them toughly, without excuses. It's not a conservative mantra of contempt, nor a liberal enshrinement of victimhood. It's right down the middle: It sees poor black people as people, not symbols. That's quite an accomplishment.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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