Review: Poets find their voices and identity in documentary ‘Don’t Be Nice’

 Jon Sands, Lauren Whitehead, 'Don't Be Nice'
Jon Sands, left, and Lauren Whitehead in a scene from “Don’t Be Nice.”
(Juno Films)

Max Powers makes his directorial debut with “Don’t Be Nice,” a finely observed documentary about a national slam poetry competition that rises above its traditional format to find the personal profundity in the art form. The film follows the Bowery Slam Poetry team as they earn their spots, and then enter a grueling poetry bootcamp with their coaches, Lauren Whitehead and Jon Sands, who push their charges to dig beyond their political platitudes to unearth a poem’s emotional core.

“Do you want to work on writing into vulnerability or do you want to win slams?” Whitehead demands of her team. She encounters resistance from the young poets, and questions how hard to push them to reveal their trauma in this art form that prizes the cathartic release of emotion above all else. She emerges as the star, a gentle but strong presence urging them all to godeeper and push the boundaries of the standard slam poem.

Filmed in the summer of 2016, the film feels like a pre-Trump time capsule. But as the summer unfolds, bloody with the police shootings of unarmed black men, the poems take on significance as a unique way to tell personal stories about the African American experience, whether in joy or sorrow. As they lift their voices to perform a group piece, “Google Black,” the black members of the audience scream in recognition, deriving a sense of belonging from representation. “We will not edit out blackness,” the poets declare, a powerful and potent message captured in Powers’ film.


'Don't Be Nice'

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Starts Sept. 27, Laemmle Glendale