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Review: 'Slam' says it loud, and repeatedly

Web posted on: Thursday, October 15, 1998 3:13:00 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Several years ago, when I worked at a massive record store here in Manhattan, many of my co-workers were much younger than me and came from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. I got a real education in the underlying political messages of rap music during this period.

I remember one black guy from the Bronx who I used to say suffered from "Rap Tourette's Syndrome." Try as you might to have a coherent conversation with him, he was prone to sudden, shouted outbursts, repeating lyrics that he felt were particularly inspiring while simultaneously denying you access to any of his true feelings.

He was full of anger -- and, God only knows, he probably had good reason to be angry -- but it always seemed sad to me that he never used his love for this form of communication to help him break free of that fury. The profane/violent/sexist lyrics he focused on simply announced his rage over and over again while never approaching the realm of spiritual transcendence. And art, even in its rawest form, is transcendence.

Theatrical preview for "Slam"

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The tools were all there, but this Angry Young Man couldn't make himself see how badly he needed to get down to building something tangible for himself. It was a tragic morning when the cops came in the store and arrested him for armed robbery.

Much moralizing

Director Marc Levin's much over-praised street poetry film, "Slam," hints at that transcendence for a long time, but never makes the leap. Instead, you get more of the same thing that you get in the worst rap music -- journalistic depictions of hellish poverty, drugs, and violence, with little or no attempt to proceed from there.

You do get a lot of pissed-off moralizing, but a movie like this simply needs to begin with the moralizing. "Slam" does that, but the same clunky anger and fear is spewed beginning, middle and end, with revelations evidently being saved up for the sequel. If you applied "Slam"'s structure to "Jaws," everybody would sit in a room for 90 minutes shouting "We have to kill the shark! We have to kill the shark!" while all the kids were out at the beach getting eaten alive.

The movie stars Saul Williams as Raymond Joshua, a Washington D.C. pot courier who also has a knack for concocting what are supposed to be devastatingly impressionistic raps about life on the streets. Most of the time, though, the only way you can tell how powerful they are is by watching the other characters respond to them. The words roll nicely but, to my ears, Raymond's insights and rhyming schemes tend to sound like someone shouting at you at a red light.

He seems like a good guy, though, because he's thoughtful, and buys ice cream for all the little kids in the neighborhood. That last move says a lot for the movie's idea of subtlety.

One day, Raymond is arrested for attempted murder, even though he didn't actually commit the crime. The prison sequence, which takes up a large portion of the film, contains the movie's most effective moments. Those moments, however, arise not from the idea of Raymond giving voice to his spirit, but from the sheer terror of being tossed into jail.

A marked man

You've seen it many times before (even as far back as 1972, in a surprisingly gritty TV movie called "The Glass House"), but that doesn't make the violent pecking order of prison life any more palatable. Raymond is a marked man in the joint because everyone thinks he set up his drug-lord friend. Levin (a poet who isn't really much of an actor) is quite convincing in these scenes as he continually watches his back, negotiating the prison courtyard as if it's a hall of terrors.

As I've already said, this wasn't the most original thing I'd ever seen, but I was happy to ride along with it. That is, until Raymond manages to avoid a gang beating by shouting out an ad-libbed rap about (you guessed it) a black man's rage at being forced into a social game that he can't possibly win. The other prisoners back off, jaws agape, as if the concept had never occurred to them.

I didn't buy it for a second; gang mentality alone would convince one of these guys to stick him. And you have more than enough free time in a jail cell to fully consider who's responsible for pointing your life in that direction in the first place. Raymond wises people up by delivering a message that most of them (if they're not idiots) already deciphered the minute they were locked in the slammer.

During his internment, Raymond befriends the prison's beautiful young writing teacher (Sonja Sohn), who encourages him to continue pursuing his poetry. When he's unexpectedly released on bail, Raymond tracks the woman down, evidently so the two of them can participate in pedantic conversations that add up to the same conversation that's repeatedly been taking place since the opening credits.

At one point, Sohn even holds up a poster of a slave ship diagram, another bit of subtlety worthy of Oliver Stone during one of his more pronounced croquet mallet-across-the-forehead moments, or John Singleton during pretty much any of his moments.

Huge disadvantage

Then, just when it looks like we're entering the third act of the story and Raymond is going to have to come to a bigger, unexpected realization about his life, the movie ends. I mean it just stops right there. This is probably intentional -- the question is supposed to be "what will he do next?" -- but, again, that's the obvious question.

It's one of the great artistic tragedies of the 20th century that black directors were long denied the chance to examine their lives through provocative moviemaking. That's been changing in recent years, and I think these young filmmakers are starting off with a huge disadvantage.

The basic palette of the black experience hasn't been established on our screens, and now we're getting force-fed prevalent experiences in movie after movie, just to know where we stand as a country. By now, though, it's time for somebody to move into less explicit areas of filmmaking.

Last year I called Kasi Lemmons' "Eve's Bayou" one of the most significant films ever made by a black director, for that very reason. It dealt with shifting realms of memory and magic that were wholly unique to the filmmaker while maintaining a decidedly African-American identity.

I have very high expectations for Lemmons' next film, and look forward to many more works from a segment of our society that has, until now, been almost wholly shut out from the film making process. I just hope that those future films broaden the scope of the subject matter beyond pistol-waving and sloganeering. These directors need to remember that it's a great big world, even when you're railing against people trying to imprison you in one corner of it.

"Slam" contains wall-to-wall profanity, some nudity, sex, and frightening violence. Keep an eye open for the Asian kid who's having a fit while riding on the prison bus with Williams. He's only around for two scenes, but, man, is this guy the worst actor on the planet or what?!! Rated R. 100 minutes.

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