Slamming with Marc Levin
by Brandon Judell
“Slam,” which won the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, explores the power
of The Word as few other features have. Critic Todd McCarthy swears that
“Slam” “carries the kind of passion and intensity that comes from
filmmakers who think they can change society.” Emanuel Levy joined in
with “a landmark film that defies easy categorization.”
“Slam” is a tale of a gifted black rapper/poet (Saul Williams) who winds
up incarcerated in a Washington, D.C. prison on drug charges. His only
tool out: his charismatic words. The only person who cares: Lauren Bell
(Sonja Sohn), his writing teacher and love interest who’s already lost a
brother to the system. “Slam” is now in release from Trimark.
To discover his inspiration, indieWIRE spoke to Levin about race, poetry
and his parents.
indieWIRE: Why is your film striking such a chord? Just imagine, from
1,500 films submitted to the New York Film Festival, it found a slot.
Marc Levin: I guess there is a hunger for a certain kind of authenticity
and a certain kind of raw reality. That as we get more and more
sophisticated, and as Hollywood movies become more and more
effects-laden, and as television becomes more and more just a kind of
tabloid overdose, I think there is a hunger for what is real.
Let me just add one thing to that. I guess we were surprised by the
universality, meaning old and young, of the people who are into the rap
and poetry of this film. Maybe on its most universal level, we’re all
imprisoned. We’re all in some kind of jail, and we’re all searching for
that poetic moment inside of us to give voice to that. I think that may
be what people are responding to.
iW: After a recent “Slam” screening, a young black teenager exclaimed,
“That’s the best film I’ve ever seen.” Do you feel you are filling a
specific need for the black community with a type of film Hollywood is
just not producing?
Levin: I hate to think about that, being a middle-aged, white, Jewish
filmmaker. But as a filmmaker, I never set out to make a black film. In
fact, originally this film was going to be shot on Riker’s Island and
was going to be much more of a multicultural/black/Latino/Asian/white
effort, sort of like what you’d find on the lower Eastside, but the
Giuliani administration was not too cooperative.
I was, however, at the time making a documentary in Washington, DC, and
I was so struck by the whole generation of young black men being
imprisoned right there in our nation’s Capitol