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FW Weekly Wishing Well

With some very unconvincing casting, 'Slam' spends too much time speechifying.

By Joe Leydon

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Despite the abundance of angry obscenities and the patina of gritty verisimilitude, the indie-produced Slam is as much a feel-good fantasy as the most formulaic Hollywood product. To be sure, there's nothing inherently wrong with this sort of noble-minded wish-fulfillment. Even while you're engrossed by the melodrama and concerned about the characters, however, you can't shake the suspicion that you're being sold a bill of goods.

The title has a twofold meaning. One on hand, it refers to competitive poetry slams, in which participants merge rap, performance art and free-form wordspinning to pour out their souls to appreciative audiences. There's also the "slammer," which is where Raymond Joshua (Saul Williams) finds himself after being busted for peddling marijuana in his hope-deprived Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Before his arrest, Raymond is introduced as a budding poet and all-around nice guy who buys ice cream for underprivileged youngsters. Behind bars, he wants keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. When he's caught between rival gangs, Raymond miraculously soothes the savage beasts with an impromptu performance of slam-style poetry. This catches the attention of a beautiful writing instructor, Lauren (Sonja Sohn), who becomes his lover after he's released on bail. She encourages Raymond to use his art to improve his life. Trouble is, she also wants him to accept responsibility for his mistakes.

Williams, a real-life star of the slam circuit, is persuasive and compelling as Raymond. And his scenes with co-star Sohn - especially an angry argument over his unwillingness to serve prison time - are infused with raw emotion. Slam often comes across as heavy-handedly didactic, however, and spends too much time on characters who deliver speeches instead of dialogue. At one point, the movie stops dead in its tracks while a judge wearily describes how the black community has suffered because drugs are so plentiful. The judge is played by former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Berry, who isn't entirely convincing in his mournful outrage.

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