by Donnia Harrington
Slam poetry is a form of artistic expression that often stems from a place of pain and self-exploration. To be a slam poet is to tell a story with meaning, an ideology that’s reinforced by veteran poet Lauren Whitehead of Max Powers’ documentary Don’t Be Nice. A tale of intertwining narratives, Don’t Be Nice focuses on the Bowery Slam Poetry Team (Ashley August, Joel Francois, Noel Quiñones, Timothy DuWhite and Sean DesVignes) as they navigate personal struggles and creative expression while preparing for the National Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.
Set during the summer of 2016, this talented group of young artists made up of African-American, Afro-Latinx and LGBT poets are brought together due to the passion in their work and their own vulnerability that has yet to be explored to the fullest extent. As a veteran, Lauren is the coach to this team, knowing the ins and outs of what makes a performance strong and how it has a lasting effect. It’s compelling watching each performer as they speak their truth through movement and dialogue. With only three minutes to use, they instantly dive into their work, taking audiences on their journeys as they come to whatever realization they reach at the end of the performance.
Although this is a film, you feel like you’re right there with them as they speak, shout and laugh, even cry. These performances are raw and full of emotion, and oftentimes you find yourself holding your breath at how intense it can get. Intensity lingers throughout the film as each poet comes to terms with the type of work that they want to put out. Powers focuses on the creative process of the birth and evolution of their work and it attests to how difficult it is to produce reflective art. Despite being in competition to win the National Championship, Lauren urges them to realize that winning isn’t everything. The true victory is how deep these poems can go, the emotional impact that it can leave to further grow as person.
There’s a scene in the film where the group sits together with their laptops out, trying to brainstorm ideas. Ashley says that she wants to see the latest Purge movie in theaters and shows Timothy the trailer. The next scene shows them rehearsing for a new poem they created called “Fuckboy Purge.” While hilarious to witness, this serves as metaphor for how these artists are influenced by what they see in the media and how the media impacts them. The aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, along with the additional killings of African-Americans (particularly Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) by the police is the cultural backdrop of Don’t Be Nice; Powers doesn’t shy from showing the candid honesty and frustration that the artists have as African-Americans seeing their own be killed nearly every week in preventable situations.
The only non-minority person in the group is Jon Sands, another veteran who coaches with Lauren. “It’s important for privileged people to know what they represent to the world,” he says early into the film in response to listening the team discuss racism in America. Jon is a listener and that’s powerful because he knows that he will never understand what it’s like to be African-American or Afro-Latinx, LGBT or any minority, he knows his place and takes in the information so he can educate himself through their experiences.
The experiences of each artist are both unique and universal; their words are personal but their stories serve as an outlet for other minorities who are in similar situations with no form of expression to explore. “Fuckboy Purge,” while initially created out of humor, ends up being a deeply reflective piece that touches on sexual assault and dysfunctional relationships because veteran Lauren pushed Ashley and Timothy to see the hidden significance behind their work. Every poem has a meaning and Lauren urges them to explore their inner thoughts, no matter how dark and painful they may be, to find that meaning. It’s uncomfortable to witness because there is a resistance from some of the artists. They aren’t prepared to delve into that kind of pain just yet, but the clock is ticking to have work prepared for the championship.
The team tackles sensitive subjects, and most of it stems from what they see in the media. Powers shows this through the words of the poets but takes it a step further to include videos of police brutality because Joel is writing a poem about it. The insertion of the actual videos is jarring to say the least, these videos are not to be taken lightly as they feature unnecessary harm that can be triggering to watch, especially for African-Americans. While video can be powerful, just hearing the thoughts and ramblings of each poet is just as, if not even more, powerful than interjecting segments of senseless police brutality.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman does a similar thing in showing footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the car attack that killed a protester. But there’s a big difference between how BlacKkKlansman and Don’t Be Nice engages with the footage. While Don’t Be Nice tackles unrelenting subject matter and could also be seen as a protest piece, much like BlacKkKlansman very much is, these are topics that could have been expressed instead through the performances of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team — no need to sensationalize it by inserting videos of police brutality.
At a Q&A for the film, it was made clear that the videos were added into the film in post-production, and not viewed by Joel or any of the other poets during the making of the doc. Lauren Whithead, joined by Jon Sands, questioned why that was. Film, and especially documentary film, as a medium is inherently meant to manipulate an audience’s feelings; there’s always an intrinsic bias there. But the insertion of the violent video feels extra manipulative, especially since the the Bowery Slam Poetry Team addresses all of those issues in a more personal, authentic way. During the same Q&A, Powers explained that the title of the film, “Don’t Be Nice,” is meant to push the subject “to write true work,” or walk the proverbial walk instead of “just being nice.” Inserting the video into the narrative, without the subjects’ knowledge feels all sorts of false, just like empty talk not backed up by real action.
The most grating thing about the use of the videos though is that the stories of these poets are powerful enough to exist without using exploitative methods to emotionally move the audience. There’s a responsibility that comes with choosing to tell the story of a marginalized group as an outsider, and there has to be trust to make it work. Inserting the videos without actually showing them to the subjects was poor judgement and bad documentary filmmaking, plain and simple. It’s a shame, because the intentions were obviously good at the outset of Don’t Be Nice. They just get lost in the shuffle of trying to sensationalize oppression, as if somehow the actual stories and experiences of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team weren’t enough.
Check out the trailer below:
Donnia Harrington has been writing critically about film for over three years. Her work has been published on FlickSided, Audiences Everywhere and ComicBook Debate. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys foreign cinema, female-centered video games, Korean music and Scandinavian crime novels.