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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Louder than a Bomb is the name of the country's biggest team poetry slam, a spoken poetry competition in Chicago for high school teams. The documentary, part of Oprah Winfrey's OWN network productions, follows four promising teams as they prepare for and compete in the eighth annual competition in 2008. An inner-city Chicago school had won it the previous year, its first year competing, in a major upset. Their coach struggles to help the teammates believe in themselves, which he considers far more important than winning the competition. The movie conveys the dedication of the coaches and the determination and passion of the talented competitors as they work hard and support each other. Language includes "f--k" and "s--t," and several poems depict illness, shootings, racial prejudice, and other challenges facing urban youth. Just as important are the vocabulary words and widespread literary and historical references the young poets include in their poems. The movie is bursting with role models and inspiration.
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What's the story?
LOUDER THAN A BOMB is a look at four of the teams and soloists from 60 schools that compete in the spoken poetry slam (competition) of the same name, the largest teen slam in the country. Steinmetz, an inner-city school, won the previous year as first-time competitors, and they return hoping for nothing less than a repeat triumph. Kevin, Jesus, Lamar, and the rest feel they didn't receive the respect they deserved the year before, and they understand they're up against other talented and equally motivated writers and performers. There's Nate, a dynamic and thoughtful senior from Whitney Young High School, who has been performing poetry since he was a little kid; Adam, a buoyant cheerleader of a talent from Northside Prep, appreciative of the chance to meet so many gifted competitors, and Nova from Oak Park, whose poetry once focused on her alcoholic, abusive father and now celebrates caring for her younger autistic brother. They all pour their hearts and insights into moving poems that they perform with the verve, energy, and grace of practiced dancers. The filmmakers were given access to moments at home and at school. We are flies on the wall as a dedicated coach threatens expulsion for team members who are failing to pull their weight. We watch as teams make dramatic last-minute program changes because of scoring imbalances. The filmmakers present many moving and spectacular performances without too much emphasis on winning or losing, in recognition of the fact that every student who competes in Louder than a Bomb seems to be a winner just for participating.
Is it any good?
If the word is mightier than the sword, nothing proves that premise more emphatically than this poetry slam and this moving record of its impact on the youth who support it. Directors Jon Siskel (nephew of the TV film critic) and Greg Jacobs have chosen their focus wisely, featuring Nate, a senior suffering pangs over performing in his last slam before he moves on to college. He's an artist whose rap-like poetry references Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, iambic pentameter, and Allen Ginsburg. He says that his ego is "Langston Huge." To watch him write, perform, teach, and inspire the younger members of his school's team is to see the transformation of a talented young man maturing into a caring, nurturing adult. Adam is a whirling power-plant of joy and dedication who understands and is grateful for the privilege of his suburban upbringing and also appreciative of the opportunity to meet and befriend talented, driven peers he would never have met without the poetry slam. His supportive dad jokes, "There's a tremendous job market for slam poetry," then says he's happy to see Adam "get educated, get a passion. He'll figure out how to make a living later." The fact that Adam has such support and stability, both emotional and financial, sets him apart from many of the other participants, whose poetry describes shootings and domestic abuse. Others write about mass shootings and gun control.
The Louder than a Bomb filmmakers matter-of-factly present racial bias. The Steinmetz team members say they were looked down on their first year as "guys with hoodies who didn't belong." And their coach laments that he deeply believes in his kids but that he has to fight to persuade them not to succumb to predictions by those who think they'll never amount to anything. Even the slam's founders want to take the emphasis off of winning, decrying the scoring system that allows a winner to be named for overshadowing the supreme importance of the poetry. The second-placers find the wisdom to recognize that they may have gotten more out of coming in second than they would have gotten out of winning. The movie ends on that triumphant realization and a list of colleges some of the participants later attended.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the importance of believing in yourself. High school students from inner-city schools get little positive feedback from the world about their potential to do great things. What are some of the ways Coach Sloan encourages his team to do well and to be responsible in Louder than a Bomb?
When Coach Sloan threatens to cut team members who have been disrespectful and irresponsible, why do you think he changes his mind? What do those team members do to persuade him to give them another chance?
Although the slam is a contest, the atmosphere created by the competitors themselves seemed supportive and encouraging among rivals. How do you think they achieved that atmosphere? Do you think conflict in other areas of life could be defused if people showed each other similar respect?
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