At the IFC Center in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City, the new documentary Don’t Be Nice is currently playing in limited release. Don’t Be Nice is an unflinching look inside the Bowery Poetry Slam Team as they prepare for the National Poetry Slam competition.
The film takes place during the summer of 2016 beginning with a night at the Bowery Poetry Club and ending with the National Poetry Slam in Atlanta, GA. At the heart of this movie are five poets; Ashley August, Timothy DuWhite, Joel Francois, Sean MEGA Desvignes, and Noel Quińońes who are guided by their coaches, Jon Sands and Lauren Whitehead as they write and perform hard-hitting poems that will advance them to the next level of competition and hopefully win them national competition honors which will open opportunities for teaching, tours, and book deals for them.
We witness the poets struggle to improve with each rehearsal and with each revision. Their performances are powerful and moving and somehow unpretentious. Lauren Whitehead stands out as she continually pushes the young performers to dig deeper and make their poems personal and therefore more compelling. If you’re unfamiliar with slam poetry, Don’t Be Nice will open your mind and may leave you thinking “I didn’t know poetry could do all that.”
Director Max Powers and cinematographer Peter Eliot Buntaine take us inside the world of these artists and take us through their arduous and sometimes painful process. We see their breakdowns and breakthroughs as they experience deeply emotional moments. The poets talk about copeing with the death of loved ones, sexual and physical abuse, and the harsh realities of what it’s like to be a person of color in America today.
The writing sessions in the film can almost seem like therapy sessions which in the wrong hands would seem exploitative or like a cheap reality show, but somehow the filmmakers were able to capture these moments in a way that has us feeling as if we’re on this journey of discovery with the poets. We’re right their in the same room being moved by their stories and their work, not looking down at them or putting them in a box. It’s a fine line the film walks masterfully.
Following the screening there was a Q&A with producer Nikhil Melnechuk and editor David Lieberman. When I asked about the process of creating the film and how they were able to show these moments of emotion without devolving into manipulative exploitation, they explained that they conducted 10 test screenings with different audiences. After each screening, they made changes according to audience feedback. In some cases, this could prove to be a recipe for disaster due to the classic “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem and over-correcting, but it helped the film tremendously. They were able to continually improve cut by cut.
Another stand out moment is a performance of a poem by Ashley August staged in a Manhattan subway. Her poem is a satiric take on her own personal issues an anxieties. Her performance is impactful and at times hilarious. The scene could almost be considered a short film within the film as it illustrates how poetry can prove to be cinematic in the right hands.
Each performer is given a moment to shine as we see their work develop from the writers’ room to the stage. We see their courage, their audacity, and the love of their craft. This is a movie about making art for its own sake and the hope that art can make the world a better place. It’s a fantastic film and a must-see. Its title comes from the saying , “Don’t be nice. Be necessary,” and it is just that… necessary.
After a year on the festival circuit, Don’t Be Nice is now in limited release in New York City at the IFC Center until September 26th and opens in Los Angeles on September 27th. It will make its television premiere on October 11th 2019 on Fuse TV.