Film Review: To Be Heard

This documentary about self-empowerment through a poetry-writing program in a rough South Bronx high school pulls us into the lives and struggles of three students who see the program as their only way up and out of a dreary life. They may be right.

Earnest and engaging though not compelling, To Be Heard tells the tale of three high-school students in one of the poorest sections of the South Bronx who bond during a special poetry program. Once we get a look at the lives of Karina, Pearl and Anthony, which the film adroitly shows at the start, we wonder how they get through the day, not to mention high school (University Heights High, on the campus of Bronx Community College).

Poverty and struggle are a given for all three. There are individual difficulties as well: being a mini-Mom to your six siblings (Karina); having an absent, jailed dad (Anthony); working a part-time job to help support your family (Pearl). But there are some remarkably caring instructors in the Power Writers program who take the kids into their own lives, and never let go, the premise being that writing and self-esteem are connected tools in a world in which all the cards are stacked against you.

True-to-life shots of a gritty urban reality are broken up by side trips to various bucolic sites and college campuses (instructor Amy takes the group), a kind of carrot before the horse. But the poetry slams—and getting the kids there—are the high points.

Thanks to Gabourey Sidibe and her Precious, it won’t sound insulting to say that from the get-go you know that the fat girl, Pearl, is going to be the only one to make it out of the Bronx, and on to Sarah Lawrence, no less, and its poetry program. Pearl shows us the self-improvement list in her bedroom, saying she always wanted to be a poet. Yet, and demonstrating the plight of young African-American men more than any statistics, it is actually Anthony who has the most talent, and a mesmerizing style: “Poetry is my get-out-of-jail card. It’s better than rehab.” He euphorically wins a poetry slam; credit the filmmakers for including the candid reaction shot of his hard-working single mother, pride and resentment mixed in, reminding us of her earlier remark that “it pisses me off that he’s just lazing around waiting for the next poetry slam.” The next time we see Anthony, he’s in criminal court.

If To Be Heard is self-serving and subjective in spots, it can be forgiven because the Power Writers idea is a benevolent one. Three of the four directors are intimately connected with the project: Roland Legiardi-Laura and Amy Sultan are featured in the film, and Edwin Martinez is the son of the high-school guidance counselor. With collaborations like this, it’s hard to assign credit or blame, but it does seem fortunate that Academy Award-winner Deborah Shaffer (The Wobblies; Witness to War) was the fourth director. Press material explains that Legiardi-Laura, a poet and filmmaker, and Sultan, a former film festival director, are co-founders of Power Writers and connected to New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café. But the film just drops them into the classroom without the identifying tags given to everyone else.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Doc NYC Film Festival, To Be Heard still leaves you with unanswered questions. Is the program part of the school’s regular curriculum? Is it funded, and if so, by whom? Who gets in (and who doesn’t)? And aside from a sly remark or two about nasty-tasting Gruyere cheese, we never find out how the kids feel about visiting the upscale Tribeca and Lower East Side lofts of, respectively, Amy and Roland.

So is there a connection between writing poetry and keeping kids off the streets? Maybe not a direct one, Amy admits at one point. Still, Roland admonishes his charges, “Every vocabulary word you miss is another bar in prison.” Inspirational without being preachy, To Be Heard is also definitely to be seen.