The title cuts two ways in “Slam.” There’s slam as in the slammer — where Raymond Joshua (Saul Williams), a small-time dealer from the hope- deprived “Dodge City” area of Washington, D.C., is doing time on a drug charge. And there’s slam as in a poetry slam — where words fly up the spine and out the mouth, rap-style, and folks compete to rouse spectators with the power of their phrases and the theatrical beauty of their performances. Ray is a nice guy who buys ice cream for the kiddies when he’s not selling weed. But as a self-taught poet of virile energy, he’s fierce, and in jail, those words come in handy: Caught in a tense prison-yard showdown between rival gangs, the impromptu one-man slam he stages soothes savage breasts and impresses a tough crowd. In the slammer, he enrolls in a creative writing class where the instructor, beautiful Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), encourages the verbal gifts he never thought to take seriously. Sparks fly — between Ray and Lauren (a poet herself), and between Ray and his own creative flint. Emotions ignite. Hope takes hold.
Directed and cowritten by Marc Levin with an intentionally untidy, restless, handheld style that owes a lot to his background as a documentary filmmaker, Slam effectively gets at the deadly, no-way-out despair that can squeeze a man as he realizes he’s become a numbered nobody in the huge, imperfect justice system. Levin’s best idea, though, is to counterbalance that hopelessness with freeing blasts of verse, performed with such drama and passion that audiences may want to break into applause. (The film has won a sheaf of festival awards, including the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the 1998 Audience Award at Cannes.)
Much of the cheering is directed toward the handsome, elegantly lanky Williams, himself a star on the spoken-word circuit, who makes Ray such an attractive convict — the kind of nonviolent, expressive, and reachable good fellow we hope, but don’t expect, sits in every prison cell, waiting to turn his life around. Other props go to Sohn, who provides the sexy counterpoint (a blazing argument between the two about Ray’s responsibility to do his jail time is a highlight). And in supporting roles, real convicts add to the drama vérité.
“Slam” suggests that no one need feel so beaten down, so furious, or so unloved (and unlovable) that he can’t find the words to say what’s on the inside. Express what’s on the inside, this optimistic, activist drama implies, and you’ll find love, respect, and the wherewithal to face what’s on the outside, however daunting. (Also, warring gangs won’t kill you.) This is, no doubt, a liberal, movie-simple idea. But then, “Slam”‘s a movie, a wish, a fiction. And as fictions go, it’s got poetic truth on its side.