Trimark // 1998 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 9th, 2004
All in line for a slice of Devil's pie.
Slam poetry is a recent phenomenon that has swept through club after coffeehouse. It is so popular, in fact, that judged contests and champions have emerged. Not unlike a "traditional" poetry reading, it involves wordsmiths getting on stage and delivering high-octane, loud, and passionate verse.
Slam is a movie that fuses this culture with the time-tested tale of young souls swept away in a tide of inner-city violence and drugs. In the movie, words, poetry, and rhymes are more than a diversion, but a vehicle for redemption and enlightenment.
Raymond Joshua (acclaimed Slam poet Saul Williams) drifts through life in a dangerous part of the Washington D.C. projects known as "Dodge City." While he deals in marijuana, his only commitment is to his lyrical abilities. Whether it's composing raps or rhymes, his head is filled with words, words, words.
Raymond eventually becomes embroiled in what initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill drug exchange, then quickly escalates into a violent shootout. Raymond dashes away, but is corralled by the police.
His life has derailed. Faced with an imposing bail and unappealing legal options, he realizes he is going to prison. Raymond enters the D.C. prison system a marked man -- gang members feel he's a traitor and a potential stoolie.
A victim of repeated attacks, always watching his back, Raymond continues to find solace in his lyrics, yearning for a pen and paper to transcribe what's zooming around in his mind.
His outlook on life begins to change when he meets Lauren Bell (Sonja John), who teaches creative writing to the inmates. She teases the spark of Raymond's creativity, encouraging him to pursue and perfect his gifts.
After a fellow inmate fronts the bail money for Raymond's release, he's back into the outside world, his eyes opened. He forms a relationship with Lauren, helps defuse a retaliatory strike by his gangland cronies, and finds himself enveloped by the world of underground Slam poetry. To what end, then, will all of this intertwine with his fate?
Slam was a big winner at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and I think the accolades were well deserved. It is a moving, provocative film that did something new with the urban-quagmire theme found in so many at-risk-kids-coming-of-age films. What Slam does well, and notches it as a notable entry into the genre, is the way the characters play off of said quagmire. Instead of focusing on the harsh nature of the ghetto and how it consumes all in its reach, the filmmakers have chronicled a character's rise from and defeating of this cycle. Slam is not a nihilistic movie -- refreshingly so, in my opinion.
One of the reasons the movie succeeds, and avoids the pitfalls of cliché, is the style in which it is shot. It feels very much like a documentary. Everything from the film stock, to the long scenes playing on just one or two characters, gives the film a feel of on-the-street authenticity.
Saul Williams, as Raymond Joshua, does well in a tough role. Though restrained most of the time he really springs forth into passionate action when he's on the stage or spouting his poetry. As his love interest/savior, Sonja John hangs in there, though she sometimes goes a little too overboard, particularly in their alley face-to-face, where her character runs the gamut of emotions in like three minutes.
Another tactic the filmmakers used, which really resonated with me, is the characterization of the other players, specifically the prisoners and the gang members. None are really detailed as soulless thugs. There's a scene in Lauren's writing class where a convict reads a poem about his past crimes that is very endearing; though the crimes aren't excused, the prisoner at least comes off as being human!
Nor are these gang members and prisoners harped on constantly as being victims. This conclusion is easily inferred by the audience, but one thing Slam isn't, is overly preachy. The closest the film comes to sermonizing is through the verbal stylization of its poets.
All in all, Slam is a very well done film, made by people voraciously passionate about the source material.
The disc receives a relatively decent treatment from Trimark. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, the video quality is appropriate for the kind of film this is, bringing that quasi-documentary feel to life.
Extras come in the form a trailer, a music video, and production commentary by director Marc Levin and actor/writer Bonz Malone. Easily, the most worthwhile of these features is the commentary, as Levin and Malone offer engaging, excited anecdotes about the process of bringing Slam to life, as well as background on the world of poetry, upon which this great little movie is based.
Take a look at Slam. Do it, especially if you: a) are a fan of the whole genre of inner-city life, b) disillusioned with the whole genre of inner-city life (this is a unique take), or c) enjoy good movies.
The court thanks the Slam folks for their offering and gives them the freedom to sling their versification to and fro, as they see fit. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Commentary
* Music Video, "The World I Know"