En route to the National Poetry Slam two years ago, the team from the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan adopted a motto: “Don’t be nice; be necessary.” Now that they’ve seen a documentary about their journey, the team members have decided much of it is profoundly unnecessary. They say the film distorts their actions and exploits the trauma of police killings of black men.
“Don’t Be Nice,” which had its premiere on Friday at the respected Hot Docs festival in Toronto, concerns five members of the Bowery Poetry Club team, the development of their work, and their climactic performance in Atlanta in August 2016 — about a month after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died at the hands of police. It was the filmmakers’ decision to include video footage from those deaths that has drawn outrage from artists in the film and others.
Timothy DuWhite, a poet featured in the documentary, referred to it as “our abysmal portrayal” on Facebook. His boyfriend, Hari Ziyad, the editor in chief of the online publication RaceBaitR, also posted on Facebook that the filmmakers “completely wallowed in black trauma porn,” explaining that when the team members were playing Pokémon games on their phones, “the producers edited it to make it seem like they were watching black people being murdered over and over again (because that’s what we do in our spare time).”
Joel Francois, another poet featured in the movie, said in an interview that he and his teammates had larger questions about the documentary’s approach to race. Noting that six of the seven cast members are people of color, he said of the filmmakers, “At the very least they could recognize the implications of having a film that has a clear divide racially, that we have issues with how the film treated race. And then they hire a white publicist and do a New York Times story with a white writer.” (The Times did not cooperate with the film’s publicist on this article.)
None of the poets accompanied “Don’t Be Nice” to the festival, which included the film in its Docs for Schools program, which offers free screenings for 100,000 Canadian students.
The film’s director, Max Powers, conceded in a phone interview from Toronto that the editing suggested things that didn’t quite happen and that there had been a possible breach of documentary ethics. He added that he was open to cutting the offensive material.
“It was a creative decision,” he said, “and I was ambivalent about that creative decision.”
But Nikhil Melnechuk, a producer of the film and the executive director of the Bowery Poetry Club, said the news footage was inserted for a practical reason: Preview audiences were confused. When the poets were shown reacting to news events, viewers were uncertain about the details of the stories, and the filmmakers thought they needed a solution.
The filmmakers include, from left, producer Nikhil Melnechuk, the director Max Powers, and producer Cora Atkinson.CreditAngela Lewis for The New York Times
“We screened the film about eight times, 20 people each time, always careful to make the audience as diverse as our community,” Mr. Melnechuk said. “When the team coach is shown asking herself ‘Do I watch the videos or not watch the videos?’ people didn’t know what videos she referred to.”
Subtitles didn’t help. “I felt very strongly,” Mr. Melnechuk said, “if we were going to set the film in the summer of 2016 and use poems that were directly related to that summer, it would have been negligent to rely on an audience memory that was already fading.”
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