From Bad to Verse


In the opening moments of Slam, the movie’s weed-hawking, rhyme-spouting protagonist, Ray (Saul Williams), buys what looks like 30 kids ice cream–which is how most dealers shoot their pocket money, of course, especially if they’re the primary objects of sympathy in an indie movie destined for a Sundance trophy. (Slam won at Cannes, too, and you need no better reason to abstain from filmfest award winners, if you don’t already.) Williams himself, all dreds and wary eyes and ropy extremities, is natural and evocative, but Slam is jerry-rigged like a pail of water atop a half-open door–become interested in the realistic textures and rough supporting performances, and you will get doused with cold sermonizing.

The story, concocted as they went along by director Marc Levin, producers Richard Stratton and stars Williams, Bonz Malone, and Sonja Sohn, exists only to illustrate well-worn socioeconomic points. ”These drugs are killing our community,” intones a D.C. judge in a typical moment that’s twice as hilarious as it should be because it’s guest star Marion Barry doing the intoning. What were they thinking? Slam‘s ideal viewer would be a cave-bred Hoosier to whom it might be cold news indeed that jail sucks, that selling drugs is a dead end, and that inner-city blacks have been screwed.

Kids might profit from it, if they can stay awake. Predictably underwritten, Slam entails a lot of brooding, thinking, and standing in front of sunsets, as Ray struggles with the hard reality of getting arrested for possession, dealing with county lock-up, and deciding whether or not to cop a plea. Along the way, he fends off jail-yard gangbangers by launching into a political rap, makes sweet time with the prison’s sexy writing teacher, and does a lot of scribbling.

Behind bars, Slam has a jittery Scared Straight vibe, and at least one rumble looks uncomfortably real. Beau Sia is a riot in an early appearance as an outraged rich kid going to the big house, and inmate-for-real Malone is a master at deadpan reaction lines. But for drama, Levin and Co. settle on Ray’s postbail plea question; he can’t find a way out of his dilemma, which seems less than surprising since, as his teacher/squeeze points out, he did do the crime. Instead, as Ray’s salvation, we have slamming, which at least here could be defined as poetry that requires no more than a sixth-grade education to read or write, and that needs to be effusively bellowed. ”You massage the universe’s spine” is how Ray’s favorite doggerel begins. Eyes to the ceiling, you may answer, ”Massage this.”