Words have power. We often affirm that, but we don’t always see how that power unfolds. Don’t Be Nice is a documentary about people who are seeking to speak with power. It follows the Bowery Slam Poetry Team for several months in 2016 as they struggle to prepare for the national championship.
The team consists of Ashley August, Timothy DuWhite, Joel Francois, Sean “Mega” Des Vignes, Noel Quiñones, and their coaches Lauren Whitehead and Jon Sands. Slam poetry is meant to be a challenge to the status quo, and for the minority poets we see here, that means to challenge the concept of fitting in to the dominant white culture. All along the way the coaches keep pushing the poets to find themselves in this spoken word poetry. Each poet makes their own works, but they also collaborate on group poems that have a power dynamic of their own.
Often in documentaries such as this, we get a great deal of backstory about the subjects. Director Max Powers wants to highlight the words. We do get bits of backstory, but that is only to serve as a backdrop to the spoken words and the powerful message they bring.
Most of the film is a chronicle of the hard work that goes into preparing for this competition. They write and rewrite. They critique one another. They are pushed by the coaches and their peers to go deeper and mine their pain or anger or grief. As the poetry develops they polish not just the words, but the way they deliver the words.
At one point in the film, Whitehead questions if slam poetry has outlived its purpose, which was to encourage the use of words in volatile lives. The film also points out one of the ironies of a competition such as this. The point of slam poetry is to give voice to people who feel unheard. But often the choice has to be made of using one’s authentic voice or creating something that fits a winning formula. Does poetry competition actually serve to soften the voices? Does it matter that the minority experience must be formed in such a way that majority audiences will understand it?
That issue is confronted in the work that is the highlight of the film. After a killing of a black youth by police, the poets struggle to give voice to what that means to them. It would be easy to create a poem that reflected their fears and angers. But how can you do that in images that white audiences will appreciate. So they took another tack. They chose to speak of the black cultural experience in their own terms and challenge those who don’t understand to learn what they mean. That poem, “Google Black”, is a masterful commentary on the way racism is so entwined in our culture.
That in essence is what Don’t Be Nice is trying to do. It gives us the people and their words and challenges us to understand the world that gives rise to that poetry.
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