A documentary on slam poetry could go a ton of different ways. For one, it could be a compilation of slam poetry, it could be a lengthy history or it could be a single competition played out. Luckily for the audience, Slam Planet: War of the Words stays away from all the obvious choices.
Starting out with a brief primer on the history and rules of slam poetry, the film quickly gets into the realm where it will spend most of its time: the lives and personalities of two competing slam poetry teams. Team One is from Austin, TX (where co-director Mike Henry is a local slam master) and Team Two is from NYC. The Austin team has had limited success in the past while team NYC: Urbana has a reputation of being a slam poetry powerhouse. Both teams are heading to St. Louis for the National Slam Competition, and if this were a typical sports film, they’d both be heading for a head-to-head battle royale. Of course, this being real-life and not scripted, it’s not that simple, and we get to see it all play out.
Team Austin finds success in various lead-up competitions, getting in a winning groove with the only major hurdle being team member Christopher Lee’s penchant for disappearing the night before competitions to sleep on the street, get drunk or do a drug or two. Team NYC is in more of a funk, however, as the former coach (and most successful touring slam poet in history, Taylor Mali) continually butts head with new team coach Celena Glenn, who is interested less in being a competitive, strategic, win-at-all-costs coach than just being honest in word and performance. Which coach, former or current, has the right approach is for you to decide.
It’s in these personal battles and experiences that the film elevates itself. There are definitely quality poetry performances on display in the film, but when you see how the poetry formed, the personalities that built it all… that’s the good stuff. From the mentor-student relationship of Zell Miller III and Da’Shade Moonbeam to the marriage of Rachel and George McKibbens, this is poetry as personal human extension. Without slam poetry, where would they be? Christopher Lee is the perfect example of this, as his normal speaking cadence, his thought processes and conversation are slam poetry all the time. But it doesn’t come off as performance, it comes off as the only way he knows how to be, the only way he knows how to express himself. He is the living embodiment of a slam poem.
Put aside all preconceptions about slam poetry or poetry in general, this is a documentary about the human spirit and artistic expression in one of its rawest forms. There’s a moment or two that everyone can relate to in the film, and it’s worth tracking the film down to experience it. And who knows, you might find yourself addicted to slam poetry in the process, though it’s not a necessity for a rewarding film-going experience.