Directed by Paul Devlin, Slamnation chronicles the competitors from the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon. The film follows the four-person teams representing twenty-six cities as they battle and strategize through preliminary rounds. Ultimately, the final four teams vie for glory and a bronze trophy of books and boxing gloves before a sold-out crowd of thousands at the Portland State Theater.
The documentary weaves together interviews, readings, home videos, and excerpts from events surrounding the competition, including a clumsy softball game, a contentious planning meeting, and an explanation of the history of slam by Mark Smith, filmed in its birthplace, the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago. The performers present a wide range of styles, including stand-out pieces by the hilarious Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, with his tongue-twisting alliteration, and a nervous Mums the Schemer captured before his stint as "Poet" on the HBO prison drama Oz.
Despite some ferocious moments between the poets, including a heated spat between Mark Smith and Bob Holman, it is clear they all hold deep respect for one another. They tease and fight in a way only family can, such as Taylor Mali's lampooning of his comrades in his exacting piece "I could be a poet." One sentiment echoed in several interviews, and evident throughout the film, is that the rivalry between competitors ultimately inspires them to create stronger work and more powerful performances.