Don’t Be Nice, directed by Max Powers, is a new documentary film shining a spotlight on the lesser-known art of slam poetry. Offering both an interesting exploration of the artform and what its artists have to say, this is a fascinating documentary that is much more important than it may initially seem.
The movie follows the Bowery Slam Poetry Team as they set out to compete in the 2016 national championships. The structure of the story follows the underdog arc, the audience cheering for these competitors as they go through various successes and defeats, but unlike most other documentaries like this, there is more to the film than that — Don’t Be Nice has something on its mind.
Something that the documentary stresses is that art, particularly slam poetry, is inherently political. As such, a significant focus of the movie is on how the Bowery Slam Poetry Team uses their poems to make political statements regarding what speaks to them at the time. Some of the best moments in the film are interviews in which the audience gets insight as to how members of the team were inspired to write their work.
Because there is a lot happening in the movie, both narratively and thematically, the film’s brisk runtime breezes by. The movie’s timeline does lack clarity, but this helps create a sense of urgency within the storyline. Because the audience only gets to see them prepare and rehearse for a short amount of time, the things which they are talking about feel immediately relevant although the events which they are referencing occurred years ago.
The only real flaw of this film is that it does not develop the members of the team on an individual level. Enough context is given for the audience to understand why they are talking about what they are talking about, but additional knowledge of their backgrounds and personality could have made the movie hit even harder.
Instead, the focus is placed on their work and its importance, and for the most part, it is pretty effective. Some of the performances, particularly in the end of the film, are powerful enough to give one chills. This movie does a phenomenal job of establishing the power that words can have by giving the audience examples of how words can be used in the right way to incite social change.
On a technical level, the film is mostly solid. The editing and cinematography are both done in a way to heighten urgency. Being that the movie takes place in 2016, these stylistic choices help make the film feel like it is still current and important. Additionally, the rhythm of the poems is used in a way to keep the narrative moving and interesting.
In many ways, Don’t Be Nice is an impressive documentary. Although some things could have been done to make the movie feel more personal, it is interesting and important regardless.
Don’t Be Nice opens in theaters on September 20.