The Wall Street Journal

Joe Morgenstern

1998-10-09 13:22:14

Capturing life on film is a sorcerer's game, whether the form be drama, cinema verite documentary or some hybrid of the two.  When movie come alive, it's because filmmakers have succeeded in stringing together a succession of images that evokes 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-imporvised 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 fins 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.  (In one early scene that updates "Cyrano," a drug client who wants to improve his love life asks Ray for a romantic poem.)  Once in a prison, though, Ray is 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 solemen 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.  (One piece is prison-stopping; it's a breath-taking scene with a wickedly funny tag line).


At first I didn't like Ray at all.  Though obviously gifted and in deep distress, the character struck me as fatuous, half formed and self-righteous as he complained about the injustice of his plight and insisted with haughty infantilism that his only responsibility was to his dreams.  But "Slam" is one of those rare, smart movies that  stays ahead of its audience by several steps.  Ray is meant to be seen as half formed.  He doesn't begin to mature, or to find his authentic voice, until he meets Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn, another versatile artist in real life), a writing teacher whose workshop for prisoners is closing down for lack of funding. Unburdened by self-pity, she is at least his equal in elequence, which she brings to bear on a stunning valedictory about breaking the cycle of crime and incarceration.


At this point the plot takes a convenient if intriguing turn.  Ray gets out on bail that's  been mysteriously arranged by a fellow prisoner, Hopha, who lives in his jail cell like  a reigning potenate.  (Bonz Malone is impressive in the role.)  When our hero  reconnects with his beautiful muse, she introduces him to the currently popular  phenomenon of "slams," competitions in which poets riff against one antoher like jazz  musicians.  Some of the poetry may sound closer to doggerel, but the slammers themselves soar from didactic to ecstatic in the fashion of unchained channelers or Holy Rollers.


For me, though, the most memorable part of this uneven, unforgettable story comes  just after Ray's temporary release from prison, when he and Lauren confront one another in a drab alley.  Here it's her turn to rage and reveal secrets, yet the camera stays fixed on his face during her sustained, astonishing outburst. That might be an egregious flaw in another film, but it proves a virtue in this one because it tells us  without trying that the camera can't keep up with the explosive life in front of its lens. (As the scene ends, a little kid on a bike rides between the two actors in what was clearly an accidental coda.) "Slam" not only captures life but enriches it with a belief in language and the clarifying power of words.