Spoken word film ‘Slam’ celebrates 15th anniversary

Marc Levin, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn in still from filming of Slam/Photo Courtesy of Blowback Productions
Marc Levin, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn in still from filming of Slam/Photo Courtesy of Blowback Productions

If there were a poem to describe the thoughts of independent film producer and director Marc Levin on the 15th anniversary of his gritty film, Slam, it would likely include the phrase “blown away.” Levin is still surprised at the film’s impact despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1998 and helping to usher in the global spoken word phenomenon.

“Saul Williams recently told me when he travels to certain countries in Africa and Asia — where they barely speak English — he does poetry from the film and the entire audience recites it with him. That blew my mind,” Levin exclaimed. “Spoken word has spread around the world and the movie was an accelerant of that.”

Levin and stars from Slam, including Williams and Sonja Sohn, celebrated the film’s anniversary at Maysles Cinema in Harlem on Thursday, Dec. 5. “Slam” serves as the kick off for a weekend long retrospective of Levin’s work. He is noted for tackling issues of race, class, politics, religion and urban identity in films such as Gang Wars: Bangin’ in Little Rock and the forthcoming documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. In each of his works, Levin aims to balance remaining authentic to the voice of his subjects while simultaneously avoiding feeding into stereotypes about people of color. It’s something he admits that he is still trying to figure out exactly how to do.

“I have a natural interest in finding the humanity of people even in Nicky Barnes, a self-admitted killer or ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross, the marketer of crack cocaine. It’s about how do you keep the authenticity of the subjects and yet break them down without being so politically correct that you lose authenticity. I’m not sure myself, and at times it is a struggle. I don’t know if there’s a process,” he said.

What Levin is sure of is that films starring, by or about people of color should not be viewed as appealing to only one market. It’s been a challenge for Levin in his career to demonstrate the broad appeal of such films. Still, he believes that’s what’s necessary to ensure that what some call a banner year for black cinema continues beyond 2013 with consistent support for quality films.

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The column, On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of arts administration company, Souleo Enterprises LLC.

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