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Backstreet Bard: Saul Williams discovers the healing power of poetry in 'Slam.'

Poetry trumps violence in Marc Levin's 'Slam'

By Heather Zimmerman

TOUTED AS A WAY to make poetry a more accessible art form, poetry slams are competitive open-mic events at which a poet reads for three minutes and then receives a rating from randomly chosen audience members. If you believe the advertising for Slam, director Marc Levin's intense urban drama, those looking forward to (or dreading) a feature-length poetry reading will be surprised. The film explores the controlled violence implied in the title as much as it offers a look at a particular literary phenomenon. It celebrates the transformative powers of poetry rather than any one poetic event, even though Levin keeps the soul-baring elements of a poetry slam always bubbling right near the surface, whether or not the characters are chanting verse.

Real-life poet Saul Williams, who contributed his own works to the film, stars as Raymond Joshua, a friendly neighborhood guy just getting through life in Dodge City, a Washington, D.C., ghetto. When Ray is arrested for his pot dealing, a judge slaps him with a sentence incongruously stiff for his crime. Caught between two rival gangs while in prison, Ray turns to his hobby of poetry writing to preserve his sanity and finds that he can also use his writings to defuse the animosity between the warring factions in the joint. Ray's way with words also captures the attention of the beautiful prison writing teacher, Lauren (Sonja Sohn, also a poet). In a suffocating prison-yard scene, Ray faces down the gangs, belting out rapid-fire verses in a version of a one-man poetry slam that wins over his toughest possible audience with a message also put to his fellow prisoners by Lauren during her class: Don't be overcome by anger. The often politically charged Slam lashes out at the self-destructiveness of gang violence while also condemning the social indifference and the resulting despair that is its source.

Levin, a documentary filmmaker, personalizes the film with grainy, hand-held camera shots that balance nicely with the sometimes distant serenity of Williams' performance. A cathartic poetry slam is the film's inevitable climax, but fortunately, rather than a reverent tribute, Levin offers a re-creation that speaks for itself, injected with humor in some cameos by well-known slam poets and grounded by Williams and Sohn's own passionate works.

Slam (R; 100 min.), directed and written by Marc Levin, photographed by Marc Benjamin and starring Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn.

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From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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