Conflicts in documentary filmmaking: In conversation with ‘Don’t Be Nice’ poet Ashley August

Ashley August/Courtesy

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In a windowless, bathroomless office in a New York City basement, a team of filmmakers labored for a year and a half to create the documentary “Don’t Be Nice,” featuring five slam poets from the Bowery Poetry Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This band of slam poets was on its way to the National Poetry Slam in Atlanta. Poets Ashley August, Joël François, Noel Quiñones, Tim DuWhite and Mega DesVignes spent the entirety of summer 2016 working toward this goal, pushing the limits of their poetry and each other alike.

For two years, the poets and documentarians operated in parallel worlds: filming and writing, editing and revising. After two years of collaboration, long after the national competition had come and gone for the poets, “Don’t Be Nice” emerged from the dingy basement.

Throughout the two years of filming and editing, the poets and filmmakers were colleagues and even friends.

The poets and filmmakers collaborated and cooperated as fellow artists with the same goal of sharing slam poetry with the world. It was not until the filmmakers began screening the documentary in 2018 that the poets became suspicious.

“We were the last ones to see it. We kind of had a feeling that something was up,” said August, former Bowery poetry slam host and founder of the poetry team.

According to August, the filmmakers had been reluctant to show them the film. She stated they felt as if everyone in and adjacent to the Bowery Poetry Club community had seen the film before she and her fellow poets had.

When the poets finally did see the film, they were at first in awe. It was, after all, an entire documentary dedicated to a formative time in their writing careers. As friends, they rejoiced in seeing a summer of their recent past unfold again in front of their eyes. 

But about halfway through, August explained, their excitement turned to confusion. Poems written about specific tragedies were allegedly overlaid with videos of police brutality to seem as if they were about different tragedies.

While viewing the film together for the first time, the first mistake seemed excusable to the poets. It was two years ago after all; the poets thought maybe they were remembering wrong. But August alleged that as the film progressed, inaccuracies, omissions and twisted truths began to stack themselves to reveal an uglier reality. 

“It felt like they wanted to win an award,” August said. “They wanted to go to all the film festivals because they had a film that was hot. That was about what was hot right now which uses the unfairness of what it’s like to be Black in America, not the truth of what it’s like to be Black in America.”

The filmmakers also allegedly overlaid videos of police brutality on footage of the poets looking at their phones to suggest that the poets were watching these videos.  

According to August, this could not be further from the truth. 2016 was the summer of Pokémon Go, and as a team, the poets became obsessed. When they needed a break or a dose of child-like excitement, they pulled out their phones and started hunting for Pokémon nearby.

“They wanted to go to all the film festivals because they had a film that was hot. That was about what was hot right now which uses the unfairness of what it’s like to be Black in America, not the truth of what it’s like to be Black in America.” — Ashley August

As brought to light in the New York Times article, “Bowery Club Poets Take Issue With Documentary,” the poets claim it was this Pokémon Go obsession that kept them so engrossed in their phones, not videos of the deaths of Black Americans by police brutality as the film suggests.

The poets specifically discussed the issue of watching Black Americans die on camera, in footage that did not make it into the film. August said that as a group, they refused to watch the videos. The content was too traumatic.

At the end of the film, François falters on stage at the National Poetry Slam. The filmmakers overlayed his stutters and false starts with more clips of police violence against Black Americans, implying that it was the thought of these tragedies that brought him to a halt on stage. According to August, François was just nervous.

“It didn’t feel like it was about us anymore,” August said.

In another instance, according to a text from DuWhite to August, a shot of the poets sitting in an apartment looking distressed and downtrodden because of the Pulse shooting at a gay bar in Orlando, was overlayed with videos of police brutality to make it seem like the sadness was actually about the death of Alton Sterling.

But above all, August alleged that the filmmakers carelessly cast off one of the poets, Quiñones. Compared to the other poets, Quiñones receives little screen time, despite spending as much time as any of the other poets with filmmakers and being present during filming.

“Noel was hugely cut out of the film like he was a character on a TV show,” August said. 

She alleged that Quiñones was cut because he failed to “fit” the story the filmmakers told.

Despite the poets’ concerns, the film has gone on to screen in many different countries and was in the running for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. 

“This is what I dreamed of,” August said about the Academy Award. “Just think about being a young girl from Brooklyn, who wanted to do this acting thing and it was the only thing she wanted and now, something that she’s the face of is being nominated for an Oscar, for an Academy Award. And I can’t tell anyone. I can’t rejoice or have a good time or even try to market myself with this thing.”

In an email response to a request for comment, the filmmakers of Don’t Be Nice outlined the anger with which DuWhite and his then-boyfriend responded to the film on social media. DuWhite’s former boyfriend discussed on a public social media thread the possibility of “running up” the poetry club with some friends. The filmmakers said because of these threats, they suspended some programming at the Bowery Poetry Club. 

The filmmakers also detailed the poets’ current involvement and employment by the club. DuWhite is now the host of PoetNY, a regular poetry show at the club. Jon Sands, who coached the five poets along with Lauren Whitehead, is scheduled to host a five-week poetry workshop starting in February.

Nikhil Melnechuk, producer of Don’t Be Niceremained as an executive director at the club for a year and a half after the film came out.

August explained, however, that while the team had tensions with some of the Bowery Poetry Club management, she and her fellow poets continued close ties to the club because of the community the club fostered. August was also financially bound to the club because of her job as a slam host.

August said that it was not until she was ultimately fired from her position at the Bowery Poetry Club that she detached herself from the club’s community and moved to Los Angeles. She had been planning a final slam and her subsequent resignation from the job, but she was fired before this final slam could happen.

“They didn’t even give me the last day of knowing that that would be my last day there,” August said.

“Many of the poems written and performed in ‘Don’t Be Nice’ refer and respond to the numerous cases of police violence that occurred during the Summer of 2016, the time the movie was filmed. The filmmakers think that it is important for the sake of historical accuracy, respect to those deceased, and artistic integrity, for the film to then show audiences the context—by way of archival footage—under which the poems were written.” — Filmmakers of “Don’t Be Nice”

August alleged that her firing was a result of her open expression about her dislike of the film.

Despite the backlash from the poets, the filmmakers stand by their decision to include video footage of police brutality. Also in the email response, they said “great care” was taken in selecting archival footage of police brutality for the film and that before releasing the film they made “judicious” cuts to the archival footage.

“Many of the poems written and performed in ‘Don’t Be Nice’ refer and respond to the numerous cases of police violence that occurred during the Summer of 2016, the time the movie was filmed. The filmmakers think that it is important for the sake of historical accuracy, respect to those deceased, and artistic integrity, for the film to then show audiences the context—by way of archival footage—under which the poems were written,” the filmmakers stated in the email.

The poets in the film, however, do not see the violent archival footage as necessary.

The film will not be featured in the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9, but instead serves as an example of the fine line in documentary filmmaking between protecting subjects and protecting filmmakers’ message.

Hannah Frances Johansson is the Weekender deputy editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hanfrancesjohan.

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