Former prison inmate watches Sundance film based on his life 25 years later

ST. GEORGE — The person on whom the film “SLAM” is based finally got to see his story on the big screen at the Sundance Film Festival’s 25th Anniversary Digital Restoration screening. “SLAM” won the Grand Jury Prize at the festival in Park City in 1998.

Momolu Stewart attended the screening and said he is grateful to all the people who fought to help him get released. Arrested in Washington, D.C., in the 90s, he was a small-time marijuana dealer and street poet. But his arrest catapulted him into the violence of life in prison.

“I was arrested for a homicide when I was 16 years old. I did 23 years in prison before a lot of activists, political people, and Kim Kardashian helped me get home,” Stewart told St. George News.

Some of the adjustments he had to make included breathing correctly and acclimating back into society. Steward said that there is an emphasis placed on “respect” for those in prison.

“But in the world that society likes to call freedom, respect is not always important to people,” Stewart said. “So that was one of the things that I had to adjust to. And being around my family and being able to open up to people tell my story.”

Momolu Stewart and Marc Levin attend the press line of SLAM by Marc Levin, an official selection from the Collection at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Jan. 22, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute and photographer Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet, St. George News

The 2023 festival reunited the director Marc Levin, producer Henri M. Kessler, cinematographer Mark Benjamin, editor Emir Lewis, and cast Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Momolu S.K. Stewart and Bob Holman.

Williams and Sohn, who are also poets, led the film focusing on social inequality and the slow-moving gears of the criminal justice system. They held a question-and-answer segment after the film and participated in four poetry events throughout the festival.

Williams said the film also kicked off a cultural movement. He said very few people were aware of what SLAM poetry was. The poetry SLAM was the spoken word movement and was about a lot of the activism surrounding the criminal justice system and marijuana legalization.

“These were all topics within the film that are now commonplace,” Williams said. “But at the time, we were pushing the envelope. We were always aware that what we were sharing was a bit more than a film that represented a movement. And from the time of that premiere, we have been moving with that movement. So it’s been extraordinary.”

The Sundance Institute’s Archives & Collection Program featured SLAM, which was digitally restored from the 35 mm film. The newly restored film was created in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Lionsgate.

SLAM made its debut in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance 1998, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. The film was directed by Marc Levin, known for “THUG LIFE IN DC” and Sundance Channel’s “Brick City”; written by Levin, Richard Stratton, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone, and Saul Williams; produced by Henri M. Kessler, Levin and Stratton.

The Egyptian Theater in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, unspecified date | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

The film was also unusual, as it was not formally scripted. It was originally going to be a documentary about the prison but then director Mark Levin decided to create a new film.

The Director of Photography, Mark Benjamin said Levin came up with the idea to bring some actors into the jail.

“And we ended up getting seven days of a great location with hundreds of prisoners,” Benjamin said. “So we integrated an actor component, and a real people prisoner component, and they interacted and that’s SLAM. It was really a controlled improv, there was no script.”

Besides the compelling subject matter, a killer 90s soundtrack, and catchy rap poetry, the nostalgic visuals are arresting. There is one moment in the film where the main character’s poetry keeps him alive in dangerous circumstances. When he is about to get a beat down in the prison yard scene, he chooses poetry in motion over violence. Upon hearing his inspirational words, the cons let him walk.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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