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More than a year after he “died,” Lawrence Wilson returned to the Simple City housing project in Southeast D.C., where he once lived and where he had been shot in the head at point-blank range. He had heard the neighborhood was making a comeback, and he wanted to experience the change for himself.
“When I came out there, out of that cab, it was just eyes and mouths wide open,” recalls Wilson, sitting in the living room of his family’s home in Prince George’s County. “Everybody was looking at me like I was a ghost. They was trippin’. They didn’t know what to say.”
Just past midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1995, as he was waiting in his car for a friend, Wilson was shot in the face five times. The first bullet blinded him instantly. Hours later, in the hospital, Wilson’s mother came out of his room and broke the news to waiting family and friends. “She was already crying, and she just said I didn’t make it,” Wilson explains. “Just like that, the word spread. She figured, ‘Maybe if I say he’s dead, [the gunman] isn’t gonna go anywhere.’”
His family held a mock funeral in Pennsylvania. For the next year, while trial proceedings took place for the shooterFrederick Lloyd, a neighborhood “friend” who was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years for attempted murderWilson lay low in the family’s new home, on Montana Avenue NE. “At that time, I was basically trying to get on the right road,” he says. “But I got stopped just that fast. Just that fast.”
Wilson wasn’t the only person looking for signs of new life in Simple City. Local television news crews came by almost daily, as did reporters from radio stations and newspapers, to tout the revitalization of this violent, drug-addled section of Southeast. Marc Levin, who was producing a documentary called Thug Life in D.C. for HBO, was on the scene as well, scouting for stories. Arthur “Rico” Rush, a member of the Alliance of Concerned Men, the community group that mounted the neighborhood renewal campaign, told Levin that Wilson had a story they should hear.
Wilson’s tale blew Levin away. “He finished the story by telling me, ‘I see more now than I ever saw then,’” Levin recalls. “I was just taken by the guy.”
After interviewing Wilson for the documentary, Levin asked him if he wanted to be part of another movie in the works, a feature film called Slam. The film centers on a young weed dealer, Ray Joshua (played by Saul Williams), who gets busted and finds romance, as well as his poetic voice, while out on bail. The filmmaker offered Wilson a small but crucial role. Wilson agreed.
In Slam, which opens this week in D.C., Wilson plays Big Mike, a confident, charismatic drug dealer in the fictional Dodge City housing projects. Dark sunglasses frame his face, covering the gray cloud of his one remaining eye and the small, blinking wound where a bullet entered his brain.
The movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, reflects the events of Wilson’s life. In one of the opening scenes, Big Mike gets shot in the head just after passing some drugs to Ray, the film’s protagonist. Everyone assumes that Big Mike is dead, but, like Wilson, he makes a Lazaruslike return in the film’s final scenes.
The filmmakers call their style “drama vérité,” a mix of actors and real people coming together to tell their stories. Most of the “actors” in Slam, except for the leads, are prisoners and prison officers in the D.C. Jail, where most of the film was shot and takes place. Levin and co-writer Richard Stratton have come to D.C. often for their workLevin made the documentary CIA: America’s Secret Warriors, and Stratton, a convicted pot dealer turned jailhouse lawyer and writer, completed a series of prison documentaries with Levin. One day, Levin says, he did an interview with former CIA Director Richard Helms at Helms’ house, then went to Capitol Hill and met with drug czar Barry McCaffrey’s people, and then went to the D.C. Jail at the end of the day. “That night,” he says, “I went to the hotel and I said to Richard, ‘This is incredible. This cityit’s like American apartheid. I’d heard about it, but it never hit me like it did this afternoon.’”
The contrast between the city’s gleaming symbols of power and its burgeoning prison population seemed like an ideal context for Slam. In the process of filming their HBO documentary inside the D.C. Jail, Levin and Stratton approached Margaret Moore, then director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, and Patricia Jackson, then warden of the D.C. Jail, for official permission to shoot Slam on site. “The corrections officials, their job is to minimize risk,” says Levin. “In this case they took an enormous risk…’cause they felt that this story should be told.”
One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place after Ray, having been strip-searched and processed, is placed in his cell. As jail’s depressing reality sinks in, he hears a steady hiphop beat coming from the cell next door. The beat revives Ray, and he joins in a call-and-response freestyle with Momolu Stewart, aka Bay, an actual inmate awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder, whose hard-core gangsta rhymes resonate like old blues.
“I knew Bay was one of the most talented rappers in the D.C. Jail,” says Levin, who heard him freestyling in the yard when he was shooting Thug Life. Saul Williams, who was working as a production assistant on the documentary, joined in the freestyle with Stewart. “They did an amazing freestyle,” says Levin. “Probably two minutes of it is in the movie, [but] they probably went for half an hour. In a way, it was the distillation of the whole concept of the poet and the gangster talking to each other, in cells right next to each otherspeaking from the same beat, coming from totally different worlds, yet being in touch with each other.”
Herein lies the irony behind Slam. Saul Williams is a poet from a totally different world from Momolu Stewart. But the character he plays, Ray, is supposed to be from Bay’s world, from the same projects, the same lousy schools, the same violence, the same hopelessness. Nowhere does the film explain Ray’s polysyllabic vocabulary and penchant for referring to Egyptian cosmology: He’s a genius born wholesale in his dire surroundingsas if Good Will Hunting were overlaid onto Boyz N the Hood.
Stewart himself is all too aware of this irony. He remains in D.C. Jail today. Unable to be interviewed in person, he describes his experience in a five-page letter written in blue ink on notebook paper, with the wide, clear script of a schoolboy: “I grew up…looking through the eyes of a man when in actuality I was only a child,” writes Stewart, whose mother left prison in ’95 after serving 10 years, and whose father died when he was 6. “Slam gave me a chance to show my true talents. When the camera came on I knew I had to shine ’cause it’s in my essence.”
But when he was in Slam, Stewart writes, “I was rapping against actors; and [in] the documentary I was rapping with my peers….They understand my struggle better ’cause we living it, we grew up together…so they understand where I’m coming from and how my soul aches just being here….The documentary was talking about life for the young, black, and the locked away.”
On any given day, 50 percent of young black men in this city are in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole, according to the locally based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. And, of course, Mayor Marion Barry has been through the system himself. Barry, it happens, shows up in a hilarious cameo appearance in Slam, playing the judge who sentences Ray. His longtime friend, Rhozier “Roach” Brown (currently serving time in Otisville Prison in upstate New York for wire fraudhe promised to get a federal prisoner out of jail in exchange for cash), plays Ray’s public defender.
“The whole phenomenon of the arrest and incarceration rate of Washington is something that always fascinated me,” says Stratton, who spent months trailing the mayor for a magazine article. “And there it goes, from the highest level of city government down to these kids from Southeast.”
Except for Williams, nearly all of the black men in the film have been in jail. Bonz Malone, who plays jail gangleader Hopha, was in Riker’s Island on assault charges just before filming began. Wilson, before he was shot, also spent a year behind bars for assault.
Wilson had never acted before his role in Slam, but he drew his persona as a street hustler from personal experiencemethod acting at its best. “What they had to work on with me was the emotion part,” he says. “We had to do it over and over, you know, like regular filmmakers. They helped me and gave me the spirit, and I basically carried on…by using my street smarts, and I did what I had to do. And we made it out.”
Momolu Stewart is now 18 and still awaiting trial in D.C. Jail, looking at a sentence of 45 years to life if found guiltywhich makes the film’s narrative all the more poignant for Wilson. “I respect [Levin and Stratton], to come and pull a black brother like me from out of nowhere, and to hopefully become bigger than I am,” says Wilson. “I’ve been shot. I’m totally blind….I don’t let my sight bring me down…. I have a life. I have a third light that I’ve never seen before.”CP