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'Slam's' Potent Poetic License

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
For sex, shooting, nudity, a prison beating and a barrage of rough, profane language
In the brisk and invigorating "Slam," poetry is not pretty. The language of the Washington, D.C.-based drama is lean, ropy and tight as a coiled muscle, ready to be used as a tool – or a weapon.

"You massage the universe's spine/ The way you twirl through time/ And leave shadows on the sun."

Thus spake Ray Joshua (Saul Williams), rapping bard of Dodge City's mean streets and gritty urban hero of "Slam." He's a poet, but doesn't know it – until he's arrested for possession of marijuana and discovers in the D.C. jail that his tongue is as necessary for survival as for communication.

The dread-locked Ray not only faces a stiff sentence – two to three years if he cops a plea, 10 if he fights the charge and loses – but violent prison gangs, whose turf wars on the street continue on the inside. One day he fends off an attack by thugs in the prison yard by bursting out in verse. (Acting like an unpredictable lunatic apparently is an effective defense.)

Throughout the film, the above line is recited over and over, like a mantra, until its meaning becomes a leitmotif for the poetic, but hardly lyrical, film.

"You massage the universe's spine" . . . speaks about stimulating the life force; "The way you twirl through time" . . . about endurance; "And leave shadows on the sun" . . . about the impact of one man's life on the world around him.

While incarcerated, Ray meets Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), a pretty writing teacher who encourages his talent and introduces him to the world of performance poetry "slams," verbal jam sessions where versifiers vie with each other in public competition. Out on bail as he awaits trial, Ray also becomes her lover as well as her student.

What she teaches him about is not literature but living: That there is hope; that rage can be channeled into art; that sacrifice of oneself is sometimes necessary to escape from the husk of a dangerous past.

Director Marc Levin's shaky, hand-held camera lends "Slam" an unvarnished, documentary feel. The script – credited not only to Levin, Bonz Malone and Richard Stratton, but to acclaimed performance poets Sohn and Williams – is dense and difficult. Vulgarity assaults the ears as often as soaring flights of poetry, which whiz by faster than the mind can wrap itself around them. One thing that does sink in are the harsh statistics about life as a black man in Washington, barked out by the bull-like corrections officer (Allan E. Lucas) who processes Ray into prison. He knows the deck is stacked against his African American brothers.

Structurally, "Slam" is a conventional drama, with its central conflict revolving around Ray's future and the difficult choices he faces: to accept his punishment and get on with his life; to fight and most likely to lose; or to run away. The movie's open-ended conclusion, where the monolithic and soaring Washington Monument serves as a visual metaphor for the obstacles and options he faces, may frustrate those who crave closure.

If "Slam" feels unfinished, however, it is more like a poem that has been polished, not until its form shines, but until its message has been rubbed raw.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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