By Kendall McKinnon

It’s 2016, and New York’s Bowery Poetry Club is hosting its annual competition for a spot at the slam poetry nationals in Atlanta, Georgia. The energy is evident. There are over 100 competitors, all slam poetry veterans, but only the five best poets are selected to compete and represent Bowery at the national level. “Don’t be Nice” documents the chosen team’s journey with one another, with their slam pieces, and thereby shows the area where the two intersect in spoken art.

For nine weeks, the top five poets train and develop their competition pieces under the guidance of coaches Lauren Whitehead and Jon Sands. More than winning, Lauren is concerned with the honesty of the poets’ work. As poems come to life on screen during training, the emphasis is given to the spoken words through supporting images and the artful quality of the filmed poem, showing the personal space of the poet and how honest words occupy that same space.

On their road to Atlanta, the team is required to compete in a regional competition that follows the same rules as nationals. They compete their practiced pieces at regionals, ultimately placing fourth. The group finds themselves with a decision to make: either continue writing into vulnerability, or write to win slams. They bravely choose the former.

A few weeks out from competition, the poets have completed pieces that reach into their own honesty, such as a past sexual assault, unaccepted Afro-Latino culture, and an abusive father. This does not come without inherent emotional exhaustion, and the film highlights the unique struggles of being vulnerable that each poet faces. As the poets are refining their work, they are also processing a number of black deaths caused by police brutality. The black poets, making up four-fifths of the team, pour their grief into a final group piece called “Google Black,” which they plan to compete at national finals.

Nationals finally arrive, and Bowery wins the first bout with a poem called “Purge,” but starts seeing scores fall at semifinals. The team has shared their three most vulnerable poems, and know that they’re out of the competition, but they have one more poem to compete. “Google Black” is their answer. The atmosphere of the original competition for the top five spots returns; the camera notices every cheer, every fist thrown into the air, and every sound of black pride in the room, and the viewer is transported to that audience, feeling the same energy that invades as the poets share their most prized work.

Bowery Poetry Club didn’t win the 2016 nationals, but “Don’t be Nice” does not document a story about winning. The film documents a story about telling your truth because “scores ain’t shit,” anyway.