School spelling bees have often been fodder for documentaries — young people trying to control their sweaty palms, navigate the overwhelming pressure of academic competition, and, if they’re lucky, develop a sense of self along the way. But many of these films, like “Bee Nation” or “Spellbound,” perpetuate a racially monolithic desire to succeed that often excludes black and Latinx adolescents. That’s what makes “Don’t Be Nice” such an interesting watch.
The debut feature from director Max Powers (known for his editing work in films like “Alone Together” and “Big Cheat”) has nothing to do with being able to spell SAT words for cash prizes, but rather using words in a similar competition setting to empower the oppressed. “Don’t Be Nice” centers a group of young black and Latinx adults who make up the Bowery Slam Poetry Team in New York City, struggling to articulate the anguish, invisibility, and trauma they’ve carried in today’s exasperating political climate punctuated by Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
Each gifted individual is linked by their passion for spoken word poetry, which allows them to grieve openly and to interrogate the micro- and macro-aggressions they encounter on a daily basis, including Trayvon Martin’s murder by police, the assimilation and romantic exoticization of Latinx people, sexual assault, and parental abuse.
Unlike the spelling bees in counterpart films, there doesn’t seem to be a monetary incentive as they enter regional and national slam championships, performing work that is equal parts confrontational and moving. If there is one, Powers doesn’t focus on it. Instead, he explores the spiritual impetus of getting up on stage and confronting a room of strangers — some of whom are their fellow talented competitors — about their deepest vulnerabilities and the things that matter to them. In doing so, he shows how their unique artistry is really an exercise of the human ability to rise above.
Whether for time constraints or another reason, we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time in other areas of these people’s lives, which might have further humanized each character. We only know that Ashley August, the sole woman in the group, is also an aspiring actress because there is one scene where she meets with a casting agent who says that her refusal to reduce herself to playing only “ghetto” roles may result in her not getting any work at all. On top of that, her size puts her in a niche casting arena.
There is one other glimpse of Ashley’s life outside of spoken word, when she’s in the small apartment that she shares with a fellow artist in the group, Mega DesVignes; Ashley flashes the camera her vision board with a top-to-bottom list of goals like “Lose 10 Pounds.” She quickly dismisses them as pipe dreams. And because of that, unfortunately, so do we. Without more expositional filmmaking, each character becomes a bit one-dimensional.
But Powers seems more interested in exposing these subjects through their artistic language and following them as they grapple with sharing their innermost thoughts in a mixed space. That’s certainly the intention of the group’s coaches, particularly Lauren Whitehead, who relentlessly urges them to include themselves and their experiences in their work. “You have to be as curious about yourself as you are with the world,” she says at one point.
That means bringing these competitors to emotional spaces that are difficult and scarring for the sake of making them the best artists they can be, supporting the adage of suffering for your art. There’s a telling moment when Ashley and Mega, along with their team members Tim DuWhite and Noel Quiñones, balk against a particularly dour piece of material they crafted that suppresses any potential for pride. It highlights that black and brown joy is as much of a powerful statement as the art of the rant, although these artists can oscillate between both with the same degree of ease and poignance.
Because “Don’t Be Nice” keeps a rather sharp focus on the pressures of the competition and on the art of finding their true voices, it ventures into very few physical spaces, which perhaps purposely gives it a very claustrophobic feel. But cinematically, that can be quite monotonous. Even when we abandon the group’s tiny, otherwise mundane rehearsal space for the energetic poetry club atmosphere of their potent performances, the grainy lens and shaky camera of cinematographer Peter Buntaine (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead”) do very little to add to the vivacity of these moments.
What we’re left with is the bare heart of these performers, the essence of “Don’t Be Nice.” When these artists get to the point where they are completely unconstrained, it conveys a freedom and strength that surprises not only the audience but the performers as well. That victory is greater than any prize or check. (Although, since we never see any of them work, it begs the very real question of how they actually do make money,) “Don’t Be Nice” ultimately captures the revitalization of the artist in a world filled with doom, which makes it remarkably resonant.