Richard Stratton, Marc Levin, and Henri Kessler attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “SLAM” Premiere at Egyptian Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Steven Simione/Getty Images)
By Stephanie Ornelas
Festivalgoers who attended the 1998 Sundance Film Festival might remember when they saw a young Momolu Stewart rapping from a Washington, D.C., prison in Marc Levin’s drama SLAM. Just 16 years old, Stewart was serving a life sentence and made an appearance from the cell next to actor Saul Williams. Levin thought it was crucial to include scenes with actual prison inmates, and his film about a talented Black poet from the projects who’s arrested on petty drug charges captured the hearts of audiences in Utah.
And it did the same thing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, when the cast and crew returned to the mountain to see their film once again in its restored and remastered state at the Egyptian Theatre. Only this time, it screened in the Festival’s From the Collection section. Levin was invited on stage and answered questions from the audience, but not before making one very special introduction.
“As you heard at the end, Saul was longing for a magical door — another way out of the dilemma he was in. Well, there’s someone here who’s walked through that door. He’s a living miracle, and was 16 years old when we shot this film. You saw him in the beginning do freestyle rap with Saul Williams in the D.C. jail, he’s a free man now after 23 years behind bars, and he’s an inspiration to us all: Momolu Stewart.”
The audience cheers as Stewart stands up to acknowledge the stage and Festivalgoers in the theater.
Levin then invites Williams and members of the cast and crew to join him for an exclusive Q&A panel led by Sundance Institute’s John Nein, where they chat about what it was like watching the film 25 years later.
“I kept looking over my shoulder trying to see Momolu,” says Williams. “Because as Marc mentioned, that magical door, that blessing of having you here, brother, to experience what we experienced 25 years ago in this room — it means the world to us. And to me, it’s about that.”
“When we started making this film, there was so much intention that we put into it. There was so much intention in the poetry,” he continues. “You can look at the sprouting of the slam scene and the spoken word scene, and where we are with prison reform and the way that we can now all talk about criminal justice and marijuana legalization, but the seed that affected us really was Momolu’s presence.”
Looking back at when he attended the Festival and saw SLAM over two decades ago, Williams explains, “When I saw the film in this room, it was the first time I had seen it. And I was waiting to see whether that scene made the cut. When it did, I said, ‘OK we did it,’” referring to that first jail rap scene with Stewart.
“It was the path to the future that finally gave us an answer, which is that fact that Momolu is here with us, and that, to me, symbolizes what Lauren says in the classroom scene: Never let anyone take your freedom,” says Levin. “It may have taken 25 years to see the end a little differently, but I guess the thing that’s most contemporary and emotionally affecting to me is the life choice dialogues — now marijuana is legal in D.C., thank goodness, but it was about those big questions about the life choices we make. Those resonated with me as powerfully today, maybe even more powerfully, since I was so concerned when we premiered the film.” Levin recalls seeing distributors walk out during the premiere and thinking that he failed.
“I remember not being able to just watch the movie because I was so nervous, and again, John, I want to thank you. Visually, it looks incredible.”
The team and audience members also watched behind-the-scenes footage of their time spent filming in the D.C. prison and working with the facility’s warden, Pat Jackson, a take-no-bullshit powerhouse whom Levin referred to as the studio chief. In one piece of footage, Jackson is filmed telling Levin and the crew that they are done filming, saying, “I don’t care where you all want to make a movie. I run a prison.”
Audiences also laughed at a behind-the-scenes clip of an inmate saying to the camera: “Tell Hollywood to go eat shit and die.”