(American, 1998, 103 minutes, color, 35mm)
"The unanimous winner of the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or and Prix du Public (Audience Award) at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, Slam is an emotionally charged, uplifting film about a talented young man who discovers himself through the love of a woman and through his extraordinary talent at spoken word poetry 'slamming'—a combination of poetry and rap which is exploding across America. Spoken word poetry 'Slams' are competitions in which poets go one on one against each other using only their words and their emotions; competitions begin at the local level and culminate each year in a national grand slam competition. Pushing poetry to its next evolutionary level, slam poets combine rap and hip hop with traditional poetry to create a potent art form that is part performance art, part word magic. Using this extraordinary new medium, (which can be seen in everything from Gap commercials to theater to clubs and now in film) writer/director Marc Levin examines such subjects as personal freedom, finding one's own voice and redemption through artistic expression. You have never heard a movie like Slam.
"Saul Williams, along with co-star Sonja Sohn, is the IFP Gotham Award winner of the newly established Perry Ellis Breakthrough Award for his role in Slam. Williams wrote the pieces he performs as Raymond in Slam and is considered one of the country's premiere performance poets. In 1996, he won the Grand Slam Championship at New York's legendary Nuyorican Poets Café. He has recordings on Mouth Almighty/Mercury, Ninja Tunes and Rawkus Records. His first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave, was recently published by Moore Black Press. Williams is a graduate of Morehouse College, where he studied drama and philosophy, and holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in acting from New York University.
"Sonja Sohn, also winner of the IFP Gotham Award's Perry Ellis Breakthrough Award, acted in a number of plays in New York City. She has performed her poetry at venues ranging from the Public Theater to the Nuyorican Poets Café to Woodstock '94. She wrote 'Run Free or Die,' which she performs in Slam. She recently completed a Sydney Pollack pilot for CBS. Her musical group 'Finy Dolo' just returned from London, where they recorded an album of poetry put to music.
"Capturing life on film is a sorcerer's game, whether the form be drama, cinema-verite documentary or some hybrid of the two. When movies come alive, it's because filmmakers have succeeded in stringing together a succession of images [that have] the look, sound and feelings of real life. Marc Levin, the director and co-writer of Slam, has been using the term 'drama verite' to describe his new film about an inner-city rapper and poet who goes to jail on a minor drug charge. Mr. Levin, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, draws a useful distinction. Slam is a fictional work that presents itself as life in the raw—as discovered fact—because its gritty, jumpy, semi-improvised scenes were shot, documentary style, in the District of Columbia's clangorous prisons and on its mean streets. Still, I'd rather start by describing this profane and sometimes profound movie in simpler terms, such as stirring, powerful and thrilling.
"The poet, Ray Joshua (Saul Williams), can't begin to fathom the disaster he's brought down on himself when the cops pick him up on suspicion of a murder he didn't commit and find some marijuana in his pocket. Until then he has dealt dope in the projects just as matter-of-factly as he has recited his rhymes. . . . Once in prison, though, Ray's horrified to realize that he's only one more talented young black man with a blighted future. What he does with his realization is the essence of the film, which is anything but a conventional prison drama. Think of 'Soul on Ice' reworked by Shelby Steele, with the emphasis on personal responsibility.
"Mr. Williams's performance is eerily beautiful. Ray runs with an Olympian's expansive grace, walks with the lowered shoulders and insouciant step of a fashion model and suggests, when his face is in repose, a psychic state on the border of solemn and mournful. Slam was written by its cast in conjunction with its director, so Mr. Williams, a prize-winning performance poet as well as a trained actor, is in fact the author of the show-stopping pieces—part rap, part hip-hop, part plain old poetry—that Ray declaims with a fierce passion reminiscent of Dylan Thomas."
— Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
"The story of how Slam was made is as striking a narrative as the film itself, due to the film's cast of characters and to the collaborative way in which it was created. Marc Levin, one of the film's producers and writers as well as its director, is an award-winning documentary film maker. Richard Stratton, another of the film's producers and writers, is a novelist and journalist who served eight years in a Federal penitentiary for importing marijuana. Henri M. Kessler, a third producer, is a former club owner and party promoter.
"Mr. Levin, Mr. Stratton and Mr. Kessler are all white, but the three principal actors whom the film introduces, and who all crafted their own parts, are black. Both Saul Williams, who plays the central figure of Ray, and Sonja Sohn, who plays his lover and mentor Lauren, are poets and actors, while Bonz Malone, who plays the prison leader Hopha, is a writer and former graffiti artist who has also served time.
"How these larger-than-life personalities came together to form the patchwork quilt of Slam is a story that starts with Mr. Levin's own background. Born in New York and reared in New Jersey, the son of political activists, Mr. Levin, 47, owes his sensibility partly to the ferment of the late 1960s, when he came of age. The dynamic gray-haired director has made a career of filming documentaries that explore such issues as the drug war and race relations. When asked about the challenges he has faced as a white film maker exploring this terrain, he said, 'That's always been the spot I've been drawn to in American culture—the place where black and white cultures meet.'
"In structuring Slam, Mr. Levin allowed his actors to create their own lines and decided to shoot in a spontaneous, documentary-like style that was dubbed, by his crew, 'drama verite.' The actors spent nine months developing the story and their characters before filming started. Much of the dialogue was to be improvised on camera.
"After getting approval [to shoot] from the prison administrators [at the District of Columbia Detention Facility], the team drove down to Washington in late July of 1997 for a two-week guerilla-style film shoot. The financing of Slam, which cost a little over a million dollars, only fell into place at the end: until then, Mr. Kessler had maxed out his credit card.
"The film has sly humor, notably in the scene where Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington has a cameo role as an anti-drug judge. The film makers also cast some real inmates in various roles, all the while improvising and working under time constraints. This gave rise to scenes such as the one where Mr. Williams, playing Ray in his jail cell, embarked on an extended verbal riff with an actual prisoner, Bay, in the cell next door. 'We were freestyling back and forth, for 45 minutes,' Mr. Williams said. 'They didn't even say, 'Cut.' They just changed the film and let us keep going.'
— Laura Winters, The New York Times
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