William Lee saw the show so he's playing judge; if you disagree please don't hold a grudge.
Our review of Brave New Voices 2010, published August 6th, 2011, is also available.
This is spoken word. This is slam poetry. These are brave new voices!
Today's youth connect more with the music of Eminem than that of Mozart so it's no surprise the classic poetry of William Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Aphra Behn do nothing for the young poets taking part in the 2008 National Slam Poetry competition. These spoken word performances are heavily influenced by the rhythm of hip-hop music and the material is inspired by personal tragedies and frustrations. That's a whole lot of articulate teen angst in Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices.
The seven-part HBO reality series, narrated by Queen Latifah (The Secret Life of Bees), follows a selection of teen poets as they prepare for the national competition in Washington, D.C. After the regional finals are quickly chronicled in the opening episode, the cameras closely follow teams in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Honolulu, Fort Lauderdale and Ann Arbor. In each city, adult poets mentor a half-dozen teens in preparation for the big contest. Instead of writing workshops, they are subjected to something that looks like emotionally draining acting classes meant to expose their deepest personal demons. Since these teens must go to a very dark, personal space to find their voices, it seems a little cruel to reduce the merit of their stories to numerical scores. However, this is reality television and that means it's all about competition.
Slam poetry can be abrasive to the ears of traditionalists: It doesn't have the pleasing rhythm of classical forms of poetry and the lyrics favor street edginess to elegance. Invariably, they come from personal stories so the works are infused with the immediacy and naivety of raw emotions. The default performance style has the poets "bust" out their work. Lines are shouted, sometimes very fast, and f-bombs are strategically dropped to get a supportive rise from the audience. The poets usually appear drained by the performance and it's pretty exhausting to watch too. A few brief moments of relief come from the handful of poems that have a lighter touch.
After a while, the next slam poetry piece sounds much like the last. Is that a bit harsh? Yes, but that's the attitude in many of the episodes as well. Until the final day of the contest, it's uncommon that we get to hear a complete poem. More often we hear a few lines spoken and then cut to the background profile of the teen. The series is more concerned with the personalities and the drama of personal struggles than it is about the actual poetry. That being said, as the characters are quite familiar by the time the show reaches the final competition, the extended last episode allows most of the performances to play out in their entirety.
Regardless of anyone's personal take on the mechanics of slam poetry, it can't be denied that these teens are exceptionally brave and talented people. Making art out of something so personal and exposing it to the scrutiny of others is no small feat. From what we see in the teams profiled, the art form appeals mainly to urban African Americans. The participants overcome many personal hurdles, be it health problems or emotional insecurities, to be a part of this movement. There is a sampling of teens of other ethnicities and their personal stories, such as living with a disability or surviving sexual abuse, are as unique and challenging as the rest; their poems are jus as touching and courageous.
Appreciators of this style of poetry will enjoy the final episode in which the complete performances of the finalist teams are shown. If you're at all interested in this material but can't spare the whole time commitment, just skip to the finale. The rest of the episodes skirt too closely to standard reality TV fare: mini-contests, some interesting personal stories and a few manufactured dramas. Over the course of six episodes, I grew restless of this material and found myself no closer to believing that poetry will change society.
In this DVD set, four half-hour episodes are on the first disc while the remaining three episodes (the finale is an hour-long special) and the extra scenes are on the second disc. Those 36 minutes of extra scenes are ten complete performances from the final day of competition. It's nice to have all the acts included on the disc but it is a bit redundant since some of those same performances are already featured in the seventh episode.
Except for a very fine amount of noise in the darker parts of the picture, the image is quite good throughout the series. The stereo audio delivers clear dialogue so you won't miss a word of the poetry. Close-captioned subtitles are also provided.
I appreciate the courage of the young poets, but the series didn't win me over to the slam poetry movement. Guilty.
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