Slam (1998 film)

Slam is a 1998 independent film directed, co-written and co-produced by Marc Levin and starring and co-written by Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn. It tells the story of a young African-American man whose talent for poetry is hampered by his social background. It won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival as well as the Caméra d'Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

Directed byMarc Levin
Produced byHenri M. Kessler
Marc Levin
Richard Stratton
Screenplay byMarc Levin
Bonz Malone
Sonja Sohn
Richard Stratton
Saul Williams
Story byMarc Levin
Richard Stratton
StarringSaul Williams
Sonja Sohn
Marc Levin
Bonz Malone
Beau Sia
Music byDJ Spooky
CinematographyMark Benjamin
Edited byEmir Lewis
Blowback Productions
Off Line Entertainment Group
Distributed byTrimark Pictures
Release date
  • January 20, 1998 (1998-01-20) (Sundance)
  • October 7, 1998 (1998-10-07) (U.S.)
  • April 9, 1999 (1999-04-09) (UK)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,009,819


Raymond "Ray" Joshua (played by Saul Williams) is a young man growing up in the Southeast, Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Dodge City, slang for a real Southeast D.C. neighborhood.[A] Despite his innate gift for poetry and his aspiration to be a rapper, he finds it difficult to escape the pressures of his surroundings: violence and drug dealing. While participating in a drug deal gone wrong, Ray's close friend Big Mike is shot. Ray is caught by the police and sent to the District of Columbia Department of Corrections' central detention facility. He is arraigned for possession of a controlled substance at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse and bail is set at $10,000. When his public defender explains his options ("cop out" and plead guilty), "rock" (stand trial), or "cooperate" (serve as an informant), Ray despairs, particularly as he is being pressured to participate in a drug culture "inside" very similar to what he was a part of "outside".

Ray takes no sides, unwilling to believe that his options are limited to the choices he is being presented with. When threatened with violence in the prison yard, he retaliates with words, speaking the truths that he's witnessed in the form of a poetic rap meant to show the other inmates how their power and energy is being diverted into petty struggles with each other, rather than being directed toward the system that is keeping them down. In prison, he participates in the writing class of teacher Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), whom he comes to respect and admire. She advises him to pay more attention to his talents.

When Ray is unexpectedly released on bail for a few days prior to his court date by an incarcerated drug dealer whom Ray had inspired with his revolutionary ideas, he is able to convince his friends and their Dodge City crew not to retaliate with more violence for the shooting — to break the cycle instead. He explains that the "projects" where they all live and die are a government experiment and that continuing to kill each other is exactly what those who set up the experiment want them to be doing. On the outside, he also reunites with Bell, and is welcomed into her circle of friends at a poetry reading at her home. They wind up spending the night together, despite her reservations about the future. The next day, she urges him to settle his legal troubles by agreeing to serve a year or two of prison time, rather than fighting the charges and potentially being put away for much longer.

They quarrel, because Ray feels that Bell doesn't understand his situation. He leaves, but shows up that night at a poetry slam event in D.C.'s Cleveland Park neighborhood that Bell had invited him to, just in time to see her perform an extremely powerful and empathetic piece that was clearly written for him. When the crowd demands an encore, she invites Ray onto the stage to perform instead, and he delivers an impromptu dramatic poem — scrawled as he crossed the city on public transit on his way to the slam — an emotional piece about black males and the criminal justice system. When the crowd demands an encore, Ray tells Lauren he needs to get some air, then leaves again. He wanders the streets until he is drawn to the Washington Monument.


  • Saul Williams as Ray Joshua
  • Sonja Sohn as Lauren Bell
  • Bonz Malone as Hopha
  • Lawrence Wilson as Big Mike
  • Beau Sia as Jimmy Huang
  • Andre Taylor as China
  • Rhozier Brown as the public defender
  • Momolu Stewart as Bay, the jail rapper

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry makes a cameo appearance as the judge at Joshua's arraignment.[1]


The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics. The film holds a 59% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from 22 critics with an average rating of 6.8/10.[2]


A soundtrack containing hip hop music was released on October 13, 1998 by Epic Records. It was produced by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky. It peaked at 84 on the Billboard 200 and 24 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.


  1. ^ In one of the opening scenes, the streetsigns for the intersection of Hartford Street, SE and 23rd Place, SE are visible, placing the setting in the real neighborhood of Knox Hill, Washington, D.C.


  1. "Marion Barry". IMDb. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  2. "Slam (1998)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
Preceded by
Sundance Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic
Succeeded by
Three Seasons
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