'Don't Be Nice': Film Review

Don't Be Nice Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Film
The art of the spoken word, at its most powerful.

Max Powers' documentary follows five young poets and their coaches as they prepare to compete in a national poetry slam competition.

The title of Max Powers' documentary, about a group of twentysomethings competing in a poetry slam competition, comes from the advice offered by one of their coaches. "Don't be nice, be necessary," Lauren Whitehead advises the five-person team comprised of African-American, Afro-Hispanic and gay poets. Her charges take the admonition to heart. They infuse their creations with personal and social issues that form the dramatic crux of Don't Be Nice.

The film follows the members of the Bowery Poetry Club team — Ashley August, Timothy DuWhite, Joel Francois, Sean MEGA Desvignes and Noel Quinones — over several months as they prepare to compete in the slam poetry nationals in Atlanta. A weekly countdown is provided via intertitles, lending an element of tension to the proceedings.

The doc very much adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach, essentially sitting in as the group and their coaches, including Whitehead, work on their material. "I'm writing as a form of activism," one of them comments, and that activism is stirred by current events (the film was shot in 2016). We see the young poets repeatedly absorbing televised news stories about black men dying at the hands of the police, including Eric Garner, and reconsidering their artistic choices as a result. (A New York Times story published last year reported that several of the film's subjects were unhappy with their portrayal in the documentary, which they said exploited racial issues).

Among the poets' other inspirations is the politically tinged horror pic The Purge, which they use as the basis for one of their most vivid creations.

Don't Be Nice disappointingly doesn't delve too deeply into the backstories of the competitors, other than the incisive commentary about their lives that they include in their poems. An exception is Ashley, who finds herself being pigeonholed in her aspiring acting career because of her color and plus-size body. One of the more compelling segments shows her meeting with a casting agent who dismisses her desire for less stereotypical roles, which inspires Ashley to create an angry poem about the subject that she performs in subway cars and stations.

The doc, largely alternating between scenes of the poets engaging in freewheeling conversations and performing their works, comes to feel talky and claustrophobic at times (cinematographer Peter Eliot Buntaine keeps his camera uncomfortably close). But it gains urgency as it goes along, culminating in the Atlanta competition where the Bowery Poetry Club team stuns the audience with a false start in which they pretend to flub their material and break into an argument. They then launch into their galvanizing group effort, "Google Black," satirically advising white people who don't understand black references to simply Google them. It's a triumphant performance. But if you want to know whether the team ultimately won the national contest, you'll just have to see the film. Currently in theatrical release, Don't Be Nice will be receiving its world television premiere Friday, Oct. 11 on Fuse.

Production companies: Radio Drama Network, Flatbush Pictures
Distributor: Juno Films
Director: Max Powers

Producers: Nikhil Melnechuk, Cora Atkinson
Executive producers: Melina Brown, Judd Ehrlich

Director of photography: Peter Eliot Buntaine
Editors: David Lieberman, Nathan Punwar

Composer: Khari Mateen

95 minutes