Slam

on October 07, 1998 by Ray Greene
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   Justifiably celebrated by audiences and the Sundance Festival jury alike, 1998's Dramatic Competition jury prize awardee is a stunning and stylistically daring narrative by documentarian Marc Levin that stands as a powerful rebuke to several received wisdoms about movies dealing with issues surrounding the African American predicament in America. Shot on location in Washington, D.C. and featuring a flawless cast of non-actors including D.C.'s controversial Mayor Marion Barry in an ironic cameo as a criminal courts judge, "Slam" chronicles the artistic and spiritual odyssey of a small-time marijuana dealer and rapper named Ray Joshua who faces a lengthy prison sentence after he is caught fleeing the scene of a drug-related shooting.
   An overly familiar milieu is treated with fresh insight by Levin and his collaborators, whose passionate, improvisational performances are deftly captured by cinematographer Marc Benjamin's roving, cinema verite camerawork. What sets "Slam" apart from the run of studio-financed "gangsta"-themed dramas is its unwavering commitment to the humanity and complexity of its characters. Most previous directors have expressed their outrage and despair over the plight of inner city blacks via lingering depictions of senseless violence and mounting body counts. Levin is unique in that he is unwilling to write off a single member of his large ensemble as irremediably lost-not one death is depicted, and the shooting that galvanizes the action is presented in a dispassionate, completely unsensationalized style. The focus in "Slam" is on redemption, and the vehicle for salvation is the spoken word. When Saul Williams as Joshua arrives in the cell block, a moment of near despair becomes a soaring poetic highlight, as Joshua and a rapper in the cell next door engage in a free-form verbal duet that solidifies their mutual commitment to survive. A black female poet (Sonja Moore) who teaches a jailhouse self-expression class helps channel Joshua's verbal energy toward self-analysis, and offers him a glimpse of a better life. But years of hard time stretch before him, and "Slam" ends on an intentionally ambiguous note, leaving the audience to decide for itself if Joshua will be willing to sacrifice a few years of physical freedom for the opportunity to permanently liberate his mind.
   Thanks to Williams' unerring performance, the issue itself is never really in doubt. Along with Moore and Vibe Magazine contributor Bonz Malone in the critical role of a prison gang leader, Williams is a towering new screen presence-an actor of such range and kinetic energy that his future, like "Slam's," seems utterly assured.
   All the more surprising given the fact that Levin is a white director, and therefore almost certain to draw fire from that segment of the politically correct contingent who cling to the notion that only filmmakers of suitable pigmentation are entitled to tell stories centered around African American life. It's an argument Levin should prove more than a match for, since every frame of his movie gives it the lie.
   Reportedly shot for around a budget of approximately $1 million, "Slam" made tradepaper headlines when it was snatched up by Trimark Pictures for a $2.5 million purchase price. Handled correctly by that increasingly ambitious indie distribution house, "Slam" might just end up being remembered as one of 1998's biggest indie film bargains.    Starring Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone. Directed by Marc Levin. Written by Marc Levin, Richard Stratton, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn. Produced by Henri M. Kessler, Richard Stratton and Marc Levin. A Trimark release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, a sex scene and brief violence. Running time: 100 min.
Tags: Starring Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone. Directed by Marc Levin. Written by Marc Levin, Richard Stratton, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn, Produced by Henri M. Kessler, Marc Levin, Trimark, Drama
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