White Man Can Slam

New York--

At the New York Film Festival press conference for Slam, the Sundance- and Cannes-awarded indie about a black, pot-dealing spoken-word poet (Saul Williams) who freestyles his way out of jail and onto the stage, one viewer pipes up to pay Marc Levin the ultimate compliment: "I think you've proven that a white director can make an authentic movie about black people." (Funny this should come up just prior to the release of Jonathan Demme's Beloved, a film that has raised the same issue on a larger scale.)

The 47-year-old Levin signals his gratitude, then drops some science of his own. "The dialogue between white and black is the great wound in the American psyche," he says. "It's also where the most interesting things have happened in art and culture."

A few days later, visiting the filmmaker at his office overlooking the Hudson River and New Jersey, I ask him to elaborate on those "interesting things." "For me," Levin says, "jazz is the ultimate synthesis of the white, classical approach to art and creativity and what the African-American experience has produced. It represents the ideal creative process: You've internalized the structure, but what it's really about is improvisation, who you're playing with, what you're playing, what the crowd's like on a given night. Ultimately, it's about being in a place where you're not seeing black and white but the whole spectrum, with people bringing different talents and experiences into the mix. That's what happened on this movie."

Collaborating with his cast of young poet performers, Levin improvised the million-dollar shoot over two weeks in the D.C. area, drawing on his documentary background to help secure such tricky locations as the District of Columbia's Detention Facility. Propelled by its DJ Spooky score and the emerging hype around the poetry-slam phenom, Slam quickly sold for $2.5 million at Sundance, where it also became notorious for inspiring an awestruck Ally Sheedy to request a live rendition of Williams's grand slam. Yet the film really proved its wide appeal at Cannes, where even a subtitled screening at 4 a.m. was packed with admirers.

Still, although the New York Times deemed it "a riveting pop fable," several alt-weekly reviewers have called its tale of freedom-through-freestyling implausible. And in a recent New York Press article, black critic Armond White accused Levin of exploiting "an alien milieu." The director acknowledges that "the questions are legitimate," while calmly coming to his own defense. "There's always gonna be someone who comes up and says, 'You know, I see your blue eyes--you're the white devil.' And my attitude is, 'Well, hey, I'm not standing here alone.'"

For Levin, the ultimate validation of his film's collaborative credibility came while rehearsing--with actual inmates--a prison-yard scene wherein Williams's character slams his way out of an impending brawl. "Saul [Williams] did about a minute of his piece and the whole room fell silent. I asked one of the more skeptical [prisoners] what he thought and he said, 'I forgot what the fuck I was thinking.' We took that exact line and used it in the film."

Levin's next movie comes at "reality" from the perspective of a white MTV fan from the Iowa cornfields who fantasizes becoming a notorious gangsta rapper. But it's "not just [about] white kids in Iowa," he says. "White Boys goes beyond race because it's really about how so many of us, regardless of color, have bought into this bullshit consumer-culture version of what matters. And that--the mall-ification of the world--is probably the overriding struggle of the late 20th century. It's our struggle as filmmakers, too: How do we stay real, legitimate, human in a system that wants to turn everything into a commodity and sell it?"

Slam screens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Lagoon Cinema as a benefit for the Loft. For tickets and information, call 379-8999.

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