with Words as Special Effects
What makes the movie Slam, starring Saul Williams and Sonya Sohn, so far superior to Hollywood extravaganzas, is that it is an analog production of all the meanings between the ones and zeros of the digital world of Hollywood filmmaking. Rather than the special effects of Gucci-clad deal-makers, it relies on human expression of the African experience in America for the spine chilling thrills. When you have realities laid bare as they are here, there is no need for a bludgeoning or an explosion to keep the audience=s interest.
Documentary filmmaker Director Mark Levin, knew to keep the camera in close enough on his players to feel authentic emotions of anger and pain. Mixing cinema-verite= with Hollywood production values, director Levin understands the love the camera has with reality and chose the right Director of Photography, Mark Benjamin, to capture it. The past work of both men says they understand that reality is inherently more dangerous and therefore more interesting than a script.
When the documentary camera is in the hands of a craftsperson, it can see the miles traveled in the skin, in the scars and in the eyes. In that journey, the African American has developed a style for survival that is admired around the world. From AWe Shall Overcome@ to Michael Jackson, or Muhammad Ali, how African Americans survive, express themselves and even prosper in a relentlessly oppressive society, is fascinating to people across many continents.
In the early days of film, some directors would take their crew and casts to the sites of real events and start shooting as the fire burned and the firemen battled. For some of the most dramatic footage in Slam, Mr. Levin was able to take his camera into the real world of the District of Columbia Department of Correction and use real prisoners as part of his cast. There he found men who have been coming up a rougher side of the mountain and yet who manage to have a dignity and a sincerity of being that resonates when they make even the smallest comment. We are able to witness this because the cameraman and the director trust enough to let the life around them guide their process. These players exuded their own Aback story@ with the menace and danger below the surface but visible to the camera and felt by the audience.
Spoken word master Saul Williams is brilliant as a sane man in an insane world with no options left, except to experience life in as much a state of enlightenment as can be mustered under difficult circumstances. He is able to express his realities in mind trips as he strings metaphors and concepts, one next to the other and puts them on display with a mesmerizing delivery. Hollywood bean counters must look at the six and seven figures they pay teams of writers and the lengthy roll of their special effects credits and wonder how this young black man can bring a movie audience to applause and rocking appreciation simply by standing in front of the camera juxtaposing images and meaning.
In a recent concert at Pratt Institute, Mr. Williams explained the relationship between poetry and music this way. AThe poet=s tongue is the reed through which the universe blows.@ In ASlam@, Mr. Williams allows the universe to have its say out loud and on screen. I think ASlam@ is going to be huge in the home video market.
Co-star poet Sonja Sohn, is magical. Around those real-life hard rocks at the prison, she is as a flower that appears through concrete cracks. Carrying her own sunshine, she displayed her appreciation for the value and power of the human spirit of the men she met there. While both visually and intellectually stunning, Ms. Sohn was aided by the authenticity of the material and her courage to add personal spaces and allow the camera to capture her mind at work
Slam is an extraordinarily satisfying piece of entertainment. The key is the reliance on the human spirit to provide the focus for attention. It is found throughout the film. The poetry duet between an inmate and Saul Williams is an example of a mind game that allows prisoners, on both sides of the walls, to survive what is meant to destroy them. The spirit, instead of breaking, finds a new way to express will to survive.
By showing the humanity behind the bars, the film makes the argument that an overhaul of the criminal justice system should be a political priority of African Americans. Those lives cannot be thrown away. Training, education and social rehabilitation must be an integral part of the prison experience. Aside from the humanity of the programs, they should be implemented for the un-prisoned citizens= self-interests. When these men have completed their time and are back among us, it is better that their lives have been shaped by caring and loving programs, rather than sharpened into social shivs on prison walls. DG