Max Power’s documentary Don’t Be Nice is a helpful crash course into the art of Slam Poetry. He follows the Bowery Poetry Club from the formation of its team to its nine-week preparation to compete in the nationals competition in Atlanta, Georgia. You’ve got to admire a documentarian who gambles on a team to succeed without the guarantee of success. Thankfully, Power chose the right team.
Don’t Be Nice opens at a slam, where the top five poets qualify to be on the Bowery’s team. Lead by slam master, Ashley August, the team consists of Joel Francois, Noel Quinones, Tim DuWhite, Sean “Mega” DesVignes, and Ashley August, herself. Shortly afterward, the team meets in a loft with their coaches Lauren Whitehead and Jon Sands. The team is described as “made up of five African-American, Afro- Hispanic and queer poets in their 20s.”
“…its nine-week preparation to compete in the nationals competition in Atlanta.”
Whitehead’s mantra, “Don’t Be Nice,” refers to the dangers inherent in not stirring the waters and maintaining the status quo, when you really should be disrupting the niceties of expected behavior and for black people, “what white culture demands.” Over the next nine weeks, each poet must come up with four or five poems and several team pieces that represent their best work. Everyone presents their drafts to the team and coaches, and each poem is challenged to be better.
Sean “Mega” DesVignes finds inspiration in musician Miles Davis and the origins of his raspy voice. After the first draft, Whitehead tells him it would be a shame if his poem was about Miles Davis and not about Sean. Slam Poetry is an expression of one’s personal experiences and feelings, and both Whitehead and Sands push the participants to look deeper inside and show vulnerability. This noble task is not without its problems as sometimes poets are pushed to beyond their emotional limits.