The documentary To Be Heard, which follows three disadvantaged New York City teenagers as they strive for some kind of salvation through poetry, begins with a long shot of a Bronx cityscape that captures both the urban skyline and the visual/auditory chaos that is so much of city life. The opening images and sounds serve as a powerful, yet subtle, preface—the kids we are about to meet have to be louder than all of this if they want to be heard.
I have to admit a certain reticence as I prepared myself for another documentary about disadvantaged, inner-city kids pursuing their passion, finding their voices and succeeding against the odds—Hoop Dreams meets Dead Poets Society, Stand And Deliver, Dangerous Minds and so on. As result, I was unprepared for how quickly and easily I was caught up with the lives of the three subjects of the film.
The film focuses on the Power Writers Program for high school students, an offshoot of the Power Writers Program at Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe. More specifically, its focus settles on three students, Anthony Pittman, Karina Sanchez and Pearl Quick, who bond over their poems, their struggles and, ultimately, their genuine desire to see each other succeed. The three teens form an alliance that they call The Tripod—if one of them cannot stand, the other two cannot stand. This proves more than a motto; it is a partnership that is put to the test.
Anthony is clearly vulnerable. His father is serving a lengthy prison sentence for dealing drugs and his single mother, though trying to do her best, is not above delivering physical abuse. Anthony has a lot of anger at the world and the situation he is in, but he is ambitious, clearly talented, passionate about his work and hopeful that it will lead him to a better place.
Karina is eighteen, the oldest of six kids (and counting) of a single mother. While she dutifully accepts her role as a surrogate mother to her siblings, doing the job that her mother would do if she was around, she acknowledges that she’s not ready to grow up, that “sometimes I still need a mommy, too.” She escapes into her writing and, when she can, her dancing.
Pearl, also living with a single mother, has her sights set on attending Sarah Lawrence to study writing. The walls of her bedroom are covered with words, quotations and a list of her positive and negative qualities—the worst of which is fear. “I have the fear that I’m not going to be anything. I have the fear that I might get rejected by someone or a job. I have the fear that I might not get into college, that I might not make it in life. I have a fear that my family will be stuck in the ghetto forever.”
Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura and Joe Ubiles, the founders of the Power Writers Program, serve not only as the teenagers’ teachers but also as their confidants and, in some cases, almost as surrogate parents. Sultan and Legiardi-Laura co-produced and co-directed the film with cinematographer-producer Edwin Martinez and veteran documentary producer-director Deborah Shaffer.
Well-produced with nice camera work and great sound, To Be Heard is wisely allowed to unfold on its on terms, loosely structured around poetry slams, escalating personal dramas and time between students and teachers.
It would have been nice to have seen more of the process, how the three central characters are being taught, the trial and error involved. Writing is hard work and, as presented, it seems to have come easily to these kids. Some entree into the process by which they discovered their own voices might have been eye-opening. By the time they are introduced, Anthony, Karina and Pearl are already eloquent, passionate and polished performers so expert in expressing themselves through their words that it is easy to forget that these are not hardened veterans of the spoken word circuit. It would have been fascinating to capture and depict the process that took them to the point where we meet them. The film follows the Tripod over the course of several years during which they don’t really seem to change—they start out as good poets and they end up as good poets. And though there is a good deal of onstage-versus-offstage perspective, some before and after would have been even better.
Still, whether fiction or nonfiction, good films need to tell meaningful stories, and meaningful stories need strong characters. To Be Heard has an ample supply of both.