[Screen It]


(1998) (Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn) (R)

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Drama: A young man jailed for drug possession uses his highly stylized combination of rap and poetry to survive in jail while hoping to improve his life.
Ray Joshua (SAUL WILLIAMS) is a petty drug dealer in a violent Washington, D.C. housing project named Dodge City. Known as much for his highly stylized combination of rap and poetry as he is for selling pot, Ray gets busted by the police after an associate, Big Mike (LAWRENCE WILSON), is gunned down during an exchange.

Ray is charged and jailed for possession, and his public defender tells him he has three options: cop a plea, fight the charge in court and risk a longer prison sentence, or rat on his other associates. Not pleased with any of his choices, Ray goes to prison where he finds himself the subject of two rival gangs' anger. Fortunately, one of the gang's leaders, Hopha (BONZ MALONE), cuts Ray some slack and -- like a wise prison guard -- tells him to lay low or risk endangering his life.

Nonetheless, one day Ray finds himself surrounded by prisoners and in an impromptu move to save his life, breaks out into one of his verses that mesmerizes and placates the other inmates. It also draws the attention of Lauren Bell (SONJA SOHN), a writing teacher working at the prison. The two are immediately drawn to one another, and upon Ray's release on bail, the two hook up with each other.

From that point on, Ray must decide not only how to handle his upcoming penal decision and plea, but also how to refocus his life and whether such a change will include Lauren.

It's not very likely they'll want to see this low budget, limited release film.
For pervasive language, a sex scene and brief violence.
  • SAUL WILLIAMS plays a petty drug dealer who, despite being caught and imprisoned for possession, still doesn't think he did anything wrong and accuses his problems on the "system" and not any fault of his own. He also cusses throughout the film and sleeps with Lauren.
  • SONJA SOHN plays a caring writing teacher who works at the prison and tries to help Ray straighten out his life. She also cusses some during the movie and sleeps with Ray.


    OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
    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.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity is extreme with at least 176 "f" words and a large number of others. We see one sexual encounter that shows some nudity and movement, and we also see nonsexual male full frontal and rear nudity in prison. A man is shot and permanently blinded (although we don't see the actual act) and some beatings and fights take place in prison.

    Although we don't see any usage, the protagonist is a drug dealer and we see some transactions. Despite being incarcerated and supposedly changing his ways, that main character doesn't show any remorse for his actions, doesn't believe he did anything wrong, and blames his and other inmates' problems on "the system" (that he and they obviously believe is out to get them since they're black).

    Should you or someone in your home wish to see this film, we strongly suggest that you take a closer look through what's been listed should you be concerned about the film's appropriateness.

  • Ray is a drug dealer and we see him dealing pot to several buyers
  • We see some beer bottles at a poetry reading, but don't see anyone drinking any.
  • People have drinks at a slam performance.
  • We see some blood on the street after a man's been shot.
  • Ray has some blood running down his nose after being beaten.
  • We see a scar covering a man's eye (where he was presumably shot).
  • Obviously Ray and the rest of his associates have both for being involved in the drug business and/or other criminal activity. In addition, even near the end of the film Ray still doesn't believe he did anything wrong and blames his problems on the "system" instead of realizing that he's his own worse problem.
  • An inmate spits at a prison guard.
  • Other prisoners take Ray's lunch and then proceed to harass and beat him.
  • A prisoner delivers a poem about him killing three people in the past (and it's mostly played for, and elicits, some laughs).
  • Some viewers may find scenes listed under "Violence" as tense.
  • Handgun: Used to shoot a man (but we only hear the gunshot and never see the gun).
  • Phrases: "Nigger" (said many times), "Shut the f*ck up," "Silly ass," "Bitch ass," "Kiss my ass," "Sucks," "Shit happens and "Suck my d*ck."
  • The rap/poetic performances (often laced with profanity as is most of the rest of the dialogue) may inspire some kids to imitate it.
  • An inmate spits at a prison guard.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Several rap songs with lyrics that couldn't be understood played during the movie, and while we didn't hear anything objectionable, the possibility exists that something does in those songs.
  • At least 176 "f" words (42 used with "mother"), 85 "s" words, 1 slang term for male genitals ("d*ck"), 12 asses, 4 hells, 2 damns, and 4 uses of "G-damn" and 1 use of "Jesus Christ" as exclamations.
  • We see some prisoners' bare butts as they go through prison processing.
  • We then see both male full frontal and rear nudity as Ray goes through processing as well.
  • We see part of a guard's butt after he's struggled with fighting inmates.
  • Ray and Lauren have sex. We see movement, her bare breasts (as well as him caressing them) and hear some sexual sounds.
  • Hopha smokes several times and we see that he has a large supply of cigarettes in his prison cell.
  • A few other prisoners smoke, and some people on the street smoke.
  • None.
  • The message that the film makes about drugs, crime and violence being bad and destructive of the black community.
  • The point that a prison guard makes to Ray about the number and percentage of African American men somewhere in the penal system.
  • The comment that Lauren makes about people on the outside thinking prisoners are monsters, but that she knows the prisoners are all good guys inside.
  • Despite what the film tries to say, the poor role models it presents for young African American kids (the criminal with no remorse or belief he did anything wrong who blames his criminal behavior and incarceration on "the system").
  • Although we don't see the shooting, a man is shot and initially presumed to have been killed (although we later see that he's alive, but permanently blinded from the wound).
  • While we don't see exactly what happens, it's suggested some prison guards may have done something violent to a prisoner who spit on one of them earlier (we see them dragging him off).
  • Other prisoners gang up on Ray and beat him on the floor, and then fight with guards who struggle with them.
  • Two prisoners fight (punches, wrestling on ground) in the prison yard.
  • A prisoner delivers a poem about him killing three people in the past.

  • Reviewed October 19, 1998

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