“When an octopus gets too stressed out, it eats itself,” begins poet Ashley August in Don’t Be Nice, the feature documentary debut from filmmaker Max Powers. At this moment in the film, August is performing a poem about the (gendered, racialized) expectation that she be less intense, in direct address to the camera. “When you see me with my literal foot in my actual mouth, you can call that dramatic.”
Don’t Be Nice, which opens at IFC on Friday and will have a weeklong run, follows a team of five New York-based slam poets and their experienced coaches. We watch as the young writers are selected through a qualifying slam at the East Village’s Bowery Poetry Club, and then as they train, over the summer of 2016, to compete at nationals in Atlanta. The doc pays loving homage to the art form and is, much like slam itself, extremely intimate: audiences learn (or relearn), through Powers’s extensive detailing, that slam is political, performative, exhausting, cathartic.
This handful of poets, all of whom are black and/or Latinx, write towards sensitive issues of identity, state violence, intimate relationships, assault, erasure in popular culture, and hope, among many other things; we see them in their homes, in their generative writing processes, in rehearsal, during their rewriting and performing and rewriting again. “It feels like going to war, every time you get onstage,” August says at one point, and you can’t help but appreciate how much energy and emotion slam requires of its artists. In a different scene, another poet has to leave rehearsal, overwhelmed by the intensity of the room.
Powers wasn’t quite prepared, when he walked into the Bowery Poetry Club on a random slam night, for this kind of potency. He didn’t have a longstanding relationship with the art form, and he certainly didn’t anticipate that he’d spend the next several months, after that unexpectedly formative evening, trailing introspective poets with his camera. But he was instantly captivated by the work happening up there, moved to capture the raw shared experience. “It’s visceral and vulnerable,” he said of slam, over the phone. “The poets are sharing so much, and you’re just a few feet away.”
Powers’s background is in editing sports movies; he found himself in new territory here, attempting to bring such “visceral and vulnerable” experiences to life on film. His audiences, of course, would be separated from the poets by time, and by a distancing screen. “Filming it straight really doesn’t do the experience justice,” he said, of the immediacy of a slam show. “Even with multiple cameras, it was never gonna capture being there.” He, along with editors David Lieberman and Nathan Punwar, decided to film the performance of certain poems almost like music videos—in staged settings, with direct address. The results are striking, stylized moments of narrative break, sprinkled throughout Don’t Be Nice like poetic punctuation. August’s octopus poem is presented in a series of cut-together scenes in the subway: in a car, on the platform, in front of a mosaic mural of sea creatures. Changing environs, Powers discovered, can help filmed text to feel dynamic. Vibrant surroundings—not to mention an acknowledged camera—can give a poet lots to play with.
Mostly, though, excepting these music-video-interludes, Don’t Be Nice is vérité, and aims to give viewers a clear, hands-off sense of how deep the devotion is, on the part of both poets and audiences, to the world of slam. How critical it is for slam spaces to exist, because they allow artists—particularly artists of color—to lay truth bare, to explore and to expose (the film’s title comes from “don’t be nice, be necessary,” a commonly-used motto in slam about creating art that’s elucidating, biting, and true). “The work of the poets wasn’t just confined to a rehearsal space,” Powers recalled, “it was commenting on and interacting with what was happening in the world at that moment, what has been happening forever and is continuing.” In a pivotal, exemplary moment in the film, the poets are collectively processing their outrage and grief about Philando Castile’s death—which, of course, happened during the summer of 2016, and weighs heavy on Powers’s subjects throughout the second half of the documentary. “We’re gonna do something. We’re gonna comment on what’s happening,” says coach Lauren Whitehead to her team, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The poets’ faces are solemn, but also determined, as they listen. Whitehead presses on: “We’re gonna save each other’s lives a little bit.”