HBO // 2010 // 55 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 6th, 2011
Power, Youth, Emotion, Passion
It happens every year. Hundreds of students from around the country compete in a large scale contest to determine who is the best. It could be in debate. It could be in speech. Or in the case of slam poetry, it could be Brave New Voices. The national event, gaining in popularity since its celebration on HBO as part of Russell Simmons' ever-increasing media empire, is a worthwhile endeavor. It gives individuals without another means of expressing themselves a chance to be seen...and more importantly heard. Now, granted, this is not anything new. The National Forensics League has been holding tournaments for nearly 80 years, encompassing everything from current issues extemporaneous speaking to acting interpretation. While mostly centered on argumentative debate, the NFL (not to be confused with "you know who") has given middle and high schoolers across the world a chance to speak and be appreciated. So has the National Catholic Forensics League (which also holds a national competition).
The Grand Slam Finals is a different beast all together -- something this 55 minute documentary fails to fully explain. There are local and regional contests, with this film highlighting the four that made it to the top -- Denver, Albuquerque, California, and New York City. Sadly, we don't get the typical behind the scenes set up for something this monumental (think David LaChapelle's amazing krump doc Rize) and are only given glimpses of the coaches and competitors before its poetry time. So what we have here is a celebration, not a story. We don't get the struggle, we get the sonic word power present and accounted for. As someone who has been involved in competitive speech and debate for the last 20 years, this critic can sympathize with the situations we see. These kids are pouring their hearts out, having feverishly worked for months to get to this point. There is always going to be disappointment. Without context, however, defeat fails to generate much emotional interest.
On the other hand, the lines and stanzas do. Yes, we are deep within cliched content territory here. It's high school...and minorities...so we're going to get big picture ideas (racism, the environment, crime) as well as subjects hitting closer to home (gender bias, peer pressure, maturation and growing pains). You can almost predict what each poem will be about by who is delivering it. Call it "poetry profiling" and it's one of the downsides to any such competition. Going with one's strengths and talking about what one knows is always going to lead to archetypes and anachronisms. The good thing here is that many of these young people recognize the routine and try desperately not to fall into it. Granted, they hope their unconventional approach to the poetic form will take up most of that slack, but once they break out of the mainstream mold, they have some amazing things to say. Indeed, the best part of the Brave New Voices experience is hearing something previously pat skewed in a new and novel way. We might think we understand bigotry or abuse, but these kids crystallize and then clarify even the most overdone ideas.
Hosted by Rosario Dawson and actor/rapper Common, Brave New Voices 2010 is an ever so slightly scattered experience. It's good, but you can see where it could be great. You instantly fall for some of these performers while wondering if there is life after the poetry slam. With judges such as Penn Jillette, poet Mayda Del Valle, and musician Talib Kweli, the decisions are definitely diverse and as per these kinds of things, you can't help rooting for your favorites. Yet one also is aware of the vast distances it took to get to this stage, and how some of those stories (albeit ones tinged with the sadness of not succeeding) would be beneficial here as well. There is nothing wrong with championing greatness, and Brave New Voices 2010 definitely does this. But how one achieved said status is equally engaging. While not a documentary on the drive and determination needed, we will gladly accept the well-spoken results of same.
As for the DVD itself, HBO provides a nice 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image that is loaded with direct from video details. The colors are bright and the overall image clear. As for the sound, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix keeps the important part of the presentation -- the words and performance -- front and solidly center. All the poetry comes across in a polished, pristine presentation. In addition, the DVD has some important bonus features. "Reflections of the Finals" gives the competitors a chance to speak a bit more about making it to the Grand Slam. "Sacrificial Poems" centers more on the writing process and what it takes to deliver a high powered verbal presentation. Still, we want more. Luckily, HBO backed a seven-part series for Simmons also entitled Brave New Voices. It gives us all the backstage drama this otherwise fine Finals presentation misses.
Not guilty. A great look at how poetry and competition changes the lives of youth.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 55 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site