The three teenage poets at the center of To Be Heard, an inspiring but choppy documentary on a high school “power writing” class in Bronx, NY, use the art of spoken word to transcend the hardships of their urban surroundings. Anthony Pittman, Pearl Quick, and Karina Sanchez form an artistic “tripod,” as they like to call themselves, but each is frustratingly individualized as subjects by the film’s four co-directors, two of which happen to be their teachers. This filmmaking collective, credited as Rebel Voices, not only follows the burgeoning artists during their creative emergence, but also into the hard world outside the classroom where real-life dilemmas, including parental abuse, drug addiction, and self-image problems, threaten to derail their larger dreams beyond the ghetto.
This arc may sound particularly familiar on paper, but To Be Heard finds the unique passions and heartaches in all three stories, allowing the viewer to become invested in whatever outcome befalls each subject. Anthony, the most volatile and angry of the bunch, rhymes about his absent father and gang troubles on the streets. Karina also finds poetic inspiration from a troubled home life, where beatings from her mother are often a regular occurrence. But it’s Pearl, an overweight young woman who’s ambitious drive to become a student at Sarah Lawrence is only matched by her glowing smile, that provides the film’s most gripping narrative. While Anthony is ditching classes or smoking weed and Karina is caught up in blatant family issues and boyfriend squabbles, it’s Pearl who develops the most as both writer and person. A class trip to Brandeis University and Walden Pond are especially affecting for Pearl, who finds palpable freedom in the open-air experience within a safe group construct. Later, when she grins to the camera and says, “This is really tight,” we believe it.
If Pearl’s words provide the most insight for living within an environment defined by social imprisonment, it’s Anthony who ends up cementing some of the cultural stereotypes the film wishes to break down. Not only does Anthony harbor a terrible attitude toward any authority figure other than his teachers, he doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate their continuous attempts to salvage his missed opportunities. Because of Anthony’s constant erratic behavior, To Be Heard is often held hostage by his flaky antics and aggressive behavior. It’s as if the filmmakers felt obligated to follow Anthony’s downward spiral just because it seems more urgent on the surface, more immediately interesting to the casual viewer. As a result, the film ignores the other the subjects for long passages of time, most heinously letting the fascinating dichotomy between artistic process and impassioned perseverance that grips Pearl sit in limbo.
Anthony’s tragic circumstance aside, To Be Heard also suffers from a spastic editing scheme that fails to capitalize on its subject’s obvious talent. Occasionally, the film cuts away to one of the teens performing a specific piece especially for the camera, kind of like a spoken-word intertitle that personalizes both the person and the material. It’s a great device, but is used so sporadically it tends to be forgotten for long stretches of time. Even worse, the film can’t quite find a dramatic groove to contextualize the inherent drama of specific situations, as in the case of the coming-home party thrown for Anthony after his release from prison. What should be a stunning confrontation between the realistic consequences of Anthony’s continuous self-denial and Katrina’s increasing rage in response to his wasted talent is trimmed down to a measly few verbal exchanges, leaving the meat of the scene on the cutting-room floor.
Despite such frustrating flaws, I keep coming back to Pearl, a beautiful vocal force whose poem that begins with the line “This is not a political poem” is a stunning act of self-empowerment that brilliantly crystallizes her teacher’s class motto: “If you don’t learn to write your own life story someone else will write it for you.” There’s no bullshit or whining in her prose, just the origin story of a potentially great artist realizing there’s so much more to life beyond the prison of her own doubts and fears. By the end of To Be Heard, we know that Pearl the artist has officially spoken, and what she has to say is vivid and unique, beautiful and sublime.