Don’t Be Nice
(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Max Powers
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)
Filmmakers, programmers, and critics often credit documentary subjects for speaking truth to power. This turn of phrase describes a person who stands up and says what’s right in defiance of the establishment. The subjects of Don’t Be Nice don’t just speak truth to power—they slam it. Slamming truth to power is far more effective, emotional, and empowering.
This invigorating film by Max Powers profiles the members of Brooklyn’s Bowery slam poetry team as the group vies in the national competition. The team features five members—Ashley, Joel, Tim, Noel, and Mega—who are a mix of Black, Afro-Latino, and queer poets. They find their voices with the aid of a compelling drill sergeant of a coach named Lauren, who keenly identifies the relationship between pain and poetry for these artists and guides them towards perfecting their verses and performances.
Cinematographer Peter Eliot Buntaine gets close and intimate with the poets and one feels privileged to be invited into their space and learn of their experiences as they explore aspects of themselves to help heal their community.
Situated in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing wave of homicides committed by white police officers against unarmed black men, the competition demands they channel their fears and frustrations into art. With the right inflection, the right ’tude, the right beat, and the right fury, a good slam is the perfect cocktail of rhythm and poetry for the five to articulate their pain and anger. Don’t Be Nice finds an outpouring of emotions as the poets slam truth to power and demand audiences to wake up.
The film gives audiences a playfully sassy slap in the face as the artists loudly and proudly celebrate their identities through poetry. Lauren worries that slam poetry is a stale art, but as more Black men are gunned down during the production, the elements of rupture, trauma, and flow inherent in slam performance revitalize the verses. The sense of urgency pulses through the film as the poets wake up to the power they hold in their tongues and their hands each time they take the stage. They honour victims of violence and give the audience agency by celebrating Blackness without giving two fucks for the sanitized images of themselves that white culture demands.
Powers finds a jaw-dropper of a moment that encapsulates this sentiment when Ashley, an aspiring actress, meets with a casting agent to discuss roles. Ashley says she’s tired of being pegged into stereotypical one-dimensional characters since she’s a plus-sized Black woman. I.e.: she’s tired of playing the sassy friend, the sassy nurse, the Black person who dies first, etc. The agent rolls her eyes and says she should take the parts anyway to build up her résumé. Here is irrefutable proof that the film industry is sick.
Ashley takes ownership of these cliché parts by creating the poem “Octonigga” that lets her play these Black stereotypes, but through subversive language and characterization, rather than through words written by and for white people. She delivers a mic drop of a performance in an electrifying musical sequence shot in the New York subway as she slams truth to power about representation and agency.
Don’t Be Nice gives each poet a spotlight sequence to shine and develop her or his voice. These interludes offer moments of disarming nakedness, particularly Mega’s recollection of enduring abuse at the hands of his father and the internalized self-hatred that left lasting scars. These performances also demand that the doc be seen with an audience because collective response from the crowd at Hot Docs offered a mix of tears, claps, hoots, and hollers that these poets deserve.
Fans of last year’s fun and inspiring Step will love Don’t Be Nice, but the doc amps the anger up to 11. Lauren’s coaching pushes the poets to explore dark places of their psyche. As they workshop their writing and find the “poetry beneath the poetry” in Lauren’s intuitive pursuit to personalize verses of well-crafted rhetoric, and to reclaim language and self-expression through distinctly Black imagery and syntax, the poets share profound experiences with one another and the audience. The poetry is therapy and art: this film will take you to places you never expected.
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.