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A darling of the 1998 festival circuit, Marc Levin's Slam won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera d'Or (best first film) at Cannes. Despite its shortcomings, the film merits these awards--Slam offers a strong cast and compelling subject matter, a perfect setting with a killer soundtrack, and over-the-top rap poetry. The film opens with an exterior shot of the protagonist, Raymond Joshua (played by real-life poet Saul Williams), walking away from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The image of a young black man turning his back on this symbol of government scant minutes before he's popped on a chump-change drug charge is poignant and disturbing--not easily forgotten by anyone aware of the immense contradictions inherent in the demographics of the nation's capital. Slam depicts Raymond's fall from relative innocence, and his apparent redemption. As a small-time dope dealer and street poet, his arrest thrusts him into an unfamiliar world--the violence of life in the slammer is palpable and altogether frightening. Incarceration, however, awakens the slumbering power of Raymond's poetry; eventually, its strength keeps him alive. In a prison yard scene when he's about to get whomped, Raymond gives free rein to his words, choosing poetry in motion over violence. Hearing Raymond's impassioned words, the hardened cons let him walk. One of them even covers his bail, and Raymond hits the streets, eager to check out Lauren (Sonja Sohn), the creative-writing teacher he met behind bars. Although the third act dilutes the credibility established by Levin's in-your-face vérité style, Slam is relentlessly passionate, unswerving in its conviction that there's an alternative to the violence that decimates North America's inner cities. Indeed, for all the film's preachiness, we cheer Raymond on, fueling his poetry, hoping, somehow, that it can transform those around him. Peace is the word.

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VM6973 Slam DVD (1999/Saul Williams) $9.98