From Max Powers comes the documentary Don’t Be Nice – and here’s our review of a film that digs into the creative process.

Max Powers’ documentary Don’t Be Nice demonstrates how words have value, especially in moments of difficulty, pain, grief and national outrage. And amongst the outcry, finding the right words is the debate brought to the table.

The timeliness of this film couldn’t have been more appropriate, in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Filmed in the summer of 2016 – a moment etched in time by the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling – Don’t Be Nice follows five young African American and Afro-Hispanic poets from New York as they prepare for the National Poetry Slam. Already, the angle conjures up memories of the competition-esque films that many of us love (Sister Act 2 sprung to mind), where everyone roots for the underdog group with their heart and soul on the line for this one life-changing moment.

Powers tackles the experience with all the traditional beats you would expect. With the assistance of Laura Whitehead and Jon Sands (poetry coaches), he documents the highs, the lows, the frustrations, the ‘pushed to the edge’ preparations uplifted by moments of personal victories and a competitive edge to be the best. It’s an absorbing watch.

Don’t Be Nice lets us peek behind the curtain of the creative process. There are limitations: while focused on the intensity of the competition, for the first half of the documentary, Powers’ distant restraint means missed opportunities to delve deeper into the backstories of its featured competitors. It’s understandable, not least as it’s his first feature-length film. When the stakes are raised, especially after a harsh wake-up call in a trial run, he wants the poetry to do the talking. Yet for the most part, these characters only exist for the moment: you barely find out what drove them to filter their thoughts on the page. But when you hear them, pushed to higher standards by Whitehead, their words cut through the air with devastating reveals and laid-bare emotions.

And it’s here where the film begins to evolve, opening itself up to the vulnerability of their art and becoming more than just a competition. The inescapable truth of systemic racism, police brutality, the innocent lives murdered, and the re-emergence of the protest movement takes on a greater significance and symbolism to their work. And when the poets question what is it like to be black in America with all of its social and its intersectionality, the documentary begins to excel, making up for its previous flaws. It makes a poignant statement: that ‘speaking your truth’ makes the most compelling art and story to tell.

It’s hard not to be moved. Their pain and the trauma leave scars, leaving me with visible tears. Their joyful and expressive parodies left me snapping my fingers in appreciation for their courage and fearlessness. It’s not easy when the documentary delves into areas where writers (such as myself) put up guarded walls to protect ourselves. These intertwined emotions cut deep to the core, presenting a spectrum with context it wants us to understand, and the stereotypes it wants us to unlearn. Something like ‘Google Black’ is that encapsulation of the necessary rebellion, a rallying call where they are seen and heard, and their experiences become celebratory examples of identity and culture. It makes the documentary a profound mixture of emotion and empowerment because every unfiltered and brutal lyric and inspiring monologue leaves you hanging on every word they say.

Don’t Be Nice is easily one of those films that slip under the radar. But as the film connects the dots from the streets to the stage, you may not always have the words for it, but the messages it articulates, and its confrontation of the truth, is an amplified voice that is needed now more than ever.

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