Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Cannes Film Festival, "Slam" is a sloppily made production with a hackneyed script, mediocre to horrible acting, and a rambling plot and pace. That such a film would receive that praise can only mean the pickings were quite slim at either festival.
Shot on a relatively small budget and in a short number of days on location in our nation's capital, the film is well-intentioned in the message it's trying to deliver (drugs, crime and prison are bad), but beyond the inclusion of "slamming" where performance artists deliver an often rushed and combined delivery of rap and poetry, the film offers absolutely nothing new to this genre.
While former documentary director Marc Levin (HBO's "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock") and cinematographer Marc Benjamin certainly give the film a gritty, "in your face" documentary style that makes the drama more personally palpable, the weak script and acting only serve to undermine the film's efforts.
The story of a dealer on the violent streets of an inner city neighborhood and the subsequent trip to prison has been done so many times before that one looks -- and hopes -- for something fresh in any new attempt to mine something from such material.
Unfortunately, this film doesn't, and we're left with the standard, profanity laden plot where other prisoners harass and beat up the new inmate, causing him to quickly change his ways. Reportedly shot using some real inmates as actors and extras, the effect shows as the acting is often excruciatingly bad.
The leads, as played by Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn, deliver performances ranging from good to decent. Williams (an acclaimed performance poet making his feature acting debut) is relatively good throughout the production and manages to carry the film in a mostly successful fashion. Sohn (another poet) occasionally shines in her performance, but is often hampered by a poorly written script that offers her contrived speeches more often than not.
A brief scene where the two finally let loose with their angry beliefs regarding Ray's future is the best and most believable moment in the movie, and one only wishes the filmmakers took more time to keep that fire burning.
The rest of the film deals with "slamming" where those performance poets verbally strut their stuff. Not much more than a hyped up, rap influenced take on the beatnik poet scene so deservedly mocked by Mike Myers in "So I Married An Ax Murderer," such "slams" are supposed to be the film's highlight and the characters' salvation.
While their passages are often nicely constructed and delivered, there's nothing stupendous or awe inspiring about the poems, and they failed to elicit the huge responses at our screening that have supposedly occurred at other ones around the country.
While some may state that the film should be "cut some slack" due to its low budget and the message it's trying to deliver, there's a clear and easily supported response to my criticism. That's simply that many other filmmakers have delivered more highly polished and far better constructed pictures on lower budgets (Spike Lee, Edward Burns, etc...) that turned out to be more highly inventive and entertaining then this picture.
The film's message that drugs and violence are bad, while well-intentioned and certainly correct, is delivered in such a goofy fashion that one can never buy into any of it. The notion that a new inmate's singular poem, delivered in a prison yard to save his own hide, would not only change his life, but also those of other prisoners who then abruptly alter their ways by adopting his philosophy, is more than a bit far-fetched to buy into.
While his poetic outburst may have temporarily caused the other inmates to ponder or laugh at what he was doing, they most likely would have pulverized him the moment he stopped.
Now, if you don't mind, is the time for me to step onto my soapbox for a moment. If I were African American, I would be outraged at pictures such as this, that show black people as nothing more than profanity spewing, crime committing lowlifes with nothing better to do than complain that "the system" caused their undoing.
While I realize the film is supposed to be uplifting and carry the anti-crime message, it's presented in such an unrealistic way -- not to mention that the main character still never feels remorse for being a drug dealer -- that this film presents nothing but bad role models for young kids.
Why not make a film that shows young black men in a positive light -- instead of as "reformed" criminals -- that today's youths would want to emulate, instead of retreading the same old tired "in the hood" formula? I now step down from my soapbox.
While Marc Levin (who happens to be white, just for your information), clearly has the potential for making compelling feature films after showcasing his award winning documentary skills, he's still got a ways to go.
Definitely needing to work harder on his next script, as well as making sure he jettisons all non- actors from any upcoming films, he should also never again cast outgoing D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (who served time for drugs) as a judge scolding the use of drugs in society.
Although that's obvious payback for the mayor's help in getting permission to shoot in and around an actual D.C. jail, it only further undermines the film's message and overall believability. Don't believe the hype you hear about this film where others are praising its efforts while being blind to its execution and final form. While it possesses good intentions and shows some potential, overall it's not a very good film. We give "Slam" a 2.5 out of 10.