Like Anthony Drazan, who directed Zebrahead (1992), Marc Levin dispels the theory that white filmmakers can't provide an authentic view of African-American issues.

Slam, his powerful debut, defies easy categorization: Part gritty prison drama, part inner-city ghetto chronicle, it's a compassionate plea for a new direction for black males if they are to survive oppression in white-dominated society. Levin, an accomplished documentarian who has previously explored troubled youth, street gangs, prison life, and the justice system, blends narrative and nonfictional conventions. Based on first-hand information, obtained by Levin while observing prison life, and casting a number of men who have served in jail, Slam is imbued with raw intensity and cinema-verite seldom seen in feature films.

Ray Joshua (Saul Williams), a product of a housing project in Washington, D.C., lives in a war zone known as “Dodge City” because of the ongoing gang warfare. He lives by his wits, making a meager existence through minor drug dealings. Endowed with a natural talent for language, he expresses himself through street poems. One summer night, while talking to Big Mike, his drug contact, the latter is gunned down. The police arrives and Ray is busted for suspicion of murder as well as possession of pot. Thrown into jail, Ray faces new dangers that make his life as risky as it was outside prison: Two rival gangs vie for his membership.

A public defender explains to Ray that, as a black ghetto male, there are three options: He can fight the charges but if he loses (which is 99 percent probability), he'll get at least 10 years; he can turn snitch and rat on his friends and walk free; and he can cop a plea to the pot charge and serve only two years. For practical reasons, his lawyer recommends to grab the third option.

At the cellblock, Ray befriends Hopha (Bonz Malone), a gang leader who first tries to persuade Ray to join his crew. But, later, Hopha understands Ray's refusal to participate, and out of respect for his art gives him a pad of paper to pursue his writing. Some romantic interest is introduced in the figure of Lauren (Sonja Sohn), a volunteer who runs a creative writing workshop and encourages Ray to use his gift to voice the anguish of his lost generation. Funds for Lauren's program are cut and she leaves, but it's clear their relationship will continue.

When the rival gangs begin yet another fight at the yard, Ray unleashes his anger in a dazzling display of lyrics that leaves the men stunned. With Hopha's help, Ray returns to “Dodge City,” only to realizes that Big Mike is not dead, but had lost his vision. It's the confrontation between the two men, with Hopha demanding retaliation and Ray insisting that revenge just perpetuates the vicious circle of killing, that conveys the film's message, carrying it way beyond the cautionary tales of Boyz N' the Hood and Menace II Society. Ray claims that gang warfare destroys the black community and doesn't achieve anything.

Slam demonstrates the origins of street poetry as an art form and its psycho-political functions. Levin gives his film a spontaneous, free-loose form that fits its unstable milieu through the use of a restlessly mobile hand-held camera and intimate close-ups of the protagonists. Deep moral conviction marks the fervent performances by real-life poets Williams and Sohn, who wrote their own material.