BY MIRIAM RINN
If you need further proof of the extraordinary impact hip hop has had on our culture from music to fashion to literature to film, see the documentary about Chicago’s poetry slam competition “Louder Than a Bomb.” Poetry slams owe an awful lot to the competitions between rappers, and not surprisingly, they attract young people who have grown up listening to hip hop and admire its verbal facility. Which is great; the teenager who takes part in a spoken word event, whether listening or performing, may learn to appreciate Yeats or Dickinson or Gwendolyn Brooks. In the meantime, they are writing and performing some terrific poems.
“Louder Than a Bomb” follows four teams out of the 46 from Chicago high schools that participated in Louder Than a Bomb during 2007-2008. Billing itself as the world’s largest youth poetry slam, Louder than a Bomb was founded in 2001, and unlike most poetry slams, which focus on individual efforts, LTAB is built around teams. The students have to work collaboratively and supportively, which may be a new experience for some of them.
Filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel chose their teams from different sections of the city, highlighting the different ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural mix of the competition. Four young people — one from each team — represent their communities. Nate Marshall, a gifted student from a poor South Side neighborhood, guides his magnet school team in his senior year. Tall, good looking, and articulate, he’s never won and this is his last chance. Half Indian, half African American, Nova Venerable comes from a comfortable home in Oak Park, but is consumed with anger at her estranged father and concern for the autistic brother she has primary responsibility for. Adam Gottlieb attends one of the most elite public high schools in the country and is totally lovable — sweet, thoughtful, the apple of his doting parents’ eyes, and a sophisticated poet. The Steinmenauts is the team from Steinmetz Academic Centre, a troubled school on Chicago’s far West Side. Amazingly, their slam team won the first year they competed, and now they’re afraid they can’t do it again.
As we listen to the teens recite their work and see them struggle behind the scenes, it’s impossible not to get involved. The documentary builds in tension and suspense as it moves through the rounds of competition. In some ways, what we see is what we get. Adam draws enormous self-confidence and poise from his privileged upbringing, and Nate clearly struggles to maintain his closeness to his family while his own gifts draw him away to another world. Although Nova is determined not to make the same mistakes her mother made, it’s not obvious that she’s avoiding the same fate. And the Steinmetz students are overwhelmed by the violence and disorganization that characterizes their lives. Yet each of these kids has found some release and solace in art, and the ability to move beyond the here and now.
“Louder Than a Bomb” has won numerous festival audience awards, and it’s not hard to see why. The kids are inspiring, their coaches and teachers are amazing, and the poetry is cool. It’s in the theater now and will premiere later this year as part of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s OWN Documentary Club.