Early in SlamNation, Paul Devlin's loose, lively 1998 documentary about the poetry-slam subculture, Taylor Mali delivers a poem that identifies and ruthlessly satirizes performance poetry's myriad clichés, from the mannered, stilted delivery used to fake raw passion to the strategic use of "shocking" obscenities. Without Mali or that scene's unvarnished satirical truth, Devlin's doc could easily have devolved into a fawning celebration of an art form that combines many of the most narcissistic aspects of poetry, theater, and performance art. But thankfully, Mali manages to generate enough bad vibes to keep the film honest. In SlamNation's audio commentary, Devlin only half-jokingly refers to his co-commentator Mali as the film's villain, but for viewers who approach the film's subject with a healthy level of cynicism, he's more like an anti-hero.
Mali is just one of a handful of effortlessly magnetic poetic exhibitionists spotlighted in the film. Others include muMs Da Schemer, a funny, street-smart New Yorker and future Oz fixture; Beau Sia, an ambitious smartass whose work gleefully lampoons stereotypes about Asian-American sexuality; and Saul Williams, a poetry-slam superstar who radiates rock-star charisma.
Devlin's film documents the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon, a royal rumble of spoken-word that pitted teams from huge metropolises like New York against squads from places like Providence and Berwyn, Illinois. SlamNation is at its best when it delves headfirst into the nooks and crannies of a vibrant subculture built on equal parts competition and cooperation. Subjects like Marc Smith, Poetry Slam's creator, wax earnest and idealistic about the power of personal expression, but it's much more entertaining to hear poets dish about rivalries, resentments, personality clashes, and philosophies and strategies for victory that border on Machiavellian. SlamNation is as much about cutthroat competition and unforgettable characters as it is about poetry, and that's ultimately what makes it entertaining even for those who'd rather endure a root canal than suffer through an actual poetry slam.