Palm trees wrapped around the streets of Beverly Hills, and gorgeous golden rope lights wrapped around them, on the way to the exclusive William Morris Endeavour Screening Room, located near the heart of one of California’s most famous zip-codes.
All the surrounding one-way roads seemed to lead here, as creatives, executives and specialists alike converged on the cozy theater for Get Lit’s showing of Our Words Collide, a 90-minute documentary featuring some of Get Lit’s own poets, centering around mental health awareness, the power of poetry and the importance of the power of belief — whether from a mentor to a mentee or in ones self.
Founded in 2006 by author and educator Diane Luby Lane, Get Lit, is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase literacy and empower young people, through the use of spoken word, poetry and visual media. They have created an original curriculum that is currently being used by many school districts; their Get Lit Players are an award-winning youth poetry troupe who have collaborated with the United Nations, John Legend, the White House, and more, inspiring their peers to read, write, uplift their communities and participate in the arts.
The night’s festivities were Sponsored by WME and CalMHSA (California Mental Health Services Authority); the former of which had previously sponsored this year’s Classic Slam, while CalMHSA ensured the resources for the screening itself, as well as the “creation of those videos that we’re [Get Lit] gonna share online for mental health month,” said Lane.
Initially premiering in 2022 at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Our Words Collide’s directors Jordan Barrow and Matt Edwards presented an abridged version for the screening, clocking in around 30 minutes or so, and featuring Get Lit poets Cassady Lopez, Amari Turner, Jason Alvarez, Tyris Winter, and Virginia Villalta through the most intimate two years that included everything from Alvarez’s dedicated three-hours-long treks to participate with his Get Lit mentors and peers to Turner’s acceptance into Tuft University. Each act culminates in a beautifully staged performance from each poet on a precisely illuminated sound-stage, in definitive and expressive wardrobe, as they delivered spoken word directly to the viewers, giving their perspectives on life, love, loss and — ultimately — the pursuit of happiness (and how uniquely that looks for everyone).
Each segment of the event was introduced by different hosts, including Jasmine Williams, a Get Lit Player Alumni since the age of 14, who now serves as a board member of the organization; she was followed by the creator and founder herself, Diane Luby Lane, who shared quotes from United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and studies from The Atlantic regarding America’s deteriorating mental health status, which crosses age and ethnic boundaries and demographics universally.
Immediately after the screening, the audience was treated to a special panel lead by NYT best selling author and mental heath advocate Hector Tobar, with Jordan Barrow, Amari Turner and Get Lit Player Sam Luo to discuss the intricacies of filming a motion picture, reflect on that point in time, and how the Get Lit experience informed and merged with the directors’ creative process and vice versa. And after that, we were treated to performances from familiar faces from this year’s Classic Slam: Lila Abercrombie, Jessica Thompson, and Classic Slam first place winner Ashley Tahay, who recited their original pieces from the competition.
After a catered intermission in the lobby — where everyone in attendance mixed and mingled over charcuterie boards, tropical fruit plates and a variety of sandwiches — I was whisked away to the now-private screening room to get a one-on-one with the masterminds behind Our Words Collide, directors Barrow and Edwards, to pick their brains about the inception of the film and the stakes they each had in the topic of mental health awareness.
“We met Diane and Get Lit on the March for Our Lives campaign probably six years ago now. And we were looking to work with some young people to voice some messages about sensible gun reforms for the campaign. And we were just blown away by how strong their opinions were and how they could vocalize their thoughts and their feelings in ways that us, as much older people, just weren’t as attuned to,” said Barrow. “And I think we were just so impressed by their strength, their vulnerability, and we just really started to form a bond and, I think, started to talk about, you know, what it would’ve looked like to follow five young people going through high school and, and their connection to poetry and the impact that it’s made on their lives.”
“Like, the ‘Aha!’ moment for me personally,” Edwards chimed in, “was when me and Jordan went to… the poetry Slam and saw them doing it live. And that was my first experience with The Slam or, you know, seeing poetry live. And me and Jordan have worked together for a better part of like 15 years I want to say. And we come from a music background. So we’ve worked with a lot of artists and done a lot of music and kind of, you know, like the behind the scenes, the recording of the album, the chatting to them about what does this song mean?”
And from all the Get Lit Poets available — each with their own unique and fascinating backstories — how did the duo settle upon the five that were featured in the final cut?
“We basically just went to a few of the classes and we met a lot of the poets and we almost had like a casting process in a way. We kind of met a lot of them and we just kind of saw who we bonded with and stories that they were telling and that kind of educated us on who would be a good fit for us and for them,” Edwards recalled, with Barrow adding on to that thought: “Performing on stage is one thing, but sharing your life on-screen is another. And it was really serendipitous. It felt like it wasn’t a long process. We really settled on these five poets quickly.”
When asked where their individual mental health journeys began and how the film morphed into what it became, Barrow started without hesitation. “Yeah, I mean the project, it was a separate project about gun reform… I think mental health was probably something that we were interested in exploring given just what we’d experience with poetry and from seeing how much trauma is associated, it can be associated with your work. You know, if you look at musicians, so much great music, it’s inspired by your own experiences, just like in poetry.
“And a lot of that is positive, but also a lot of that pain can turn into art form too. So I don’t know if we set out to make a film about… the mental health journey, but I think it quickly happened that as we got closer with the poets, as we started to listen to their poems and then start to pull the threads and understand what led to them writing this poem, what influenced this line here? I think Covid was a big touchpoint in the film… I think going through the global pandemic with these five young people, I think it inspired us. It gave us a sense of a community.
“I think it’s dramatically impacted how I view mental health… and want to explore my own challenges ultimately to, you know, be more resilient.”
Resilience — a word that appeared multiple times throughout the night, from Hector Tobar’s panel with Barrow, Turner, and Luo to guest host Mason Granger’s concise monologues to specks of dialogue within the feature film itself. Perhaps that was the key to overcoming the universal crisis? It was certainly enough to carry Tyris, Cassady, Jason, Amari, and Virginia through a turbulent and indefinite two-plus years, when the pandemic put the world — but not life — on pause.
“Because of the subject of tonight’s mental health stuff,” said Edwards, “we kind of used Jason’s story, which leads more into that. But each of the poets also had like different stories that would also connect with a lot of young people. So for instance, like Tyris lost his family at a very young age and found family in Get Lit and poetry; Cassady, you know, went through, like crazy sickness when she was younger and her stories about kind of coming of age and growing up. Virginia has a… really impoverished family, but her mother’s like an absolute gangster and you know, like she’s just wants to make her family proud and kind of goes all the way up to speaking at the Women’s March.
“But, in terms of the mental health aspect of it… I don’t know if we have seen the true ram
ramifications of isolation, you know? And the way that has affected people.”
Edwards took a beat to reflect. “You know, I think Jason has a great line in the film where he’s just like — with poetry — he’s just realized like, we’re not alone. We’re all dealing with the human condition.
We’re all going through our trials and tribulations and it’s… the hardest thing that you could be going through, there’s somebody out there that’s going through the same thing.”
In the grand scheme of things, what’s their proudest takeaway from the film personally, as filmmakers themselves?
“Having a film that I feel like is authentic,” Barrow answered quickly and confidently. “This was our first feature film and I think it was something we funded ourselves, did ourselves to be able to make something that truly reflected the story and did justice to these incredible poets. I think we felt a big sense of responsibility, working with young people that were kind enough to let us into their lives and we wanted to do it justice.”
And how did veteran actress Rosario Dawson get involved with the duo’s first major motion picture feature?
“We’d finished with the film and we… wanted to try to be selective with bringing on the right team or the right partners,” Barrow said with a small smile. “And so we shared an early cut with her team, and knew that she had a strong background in poetry and a passion for the arts. And we’re just so fortunate that, you know, she watched the film and loved it and really connected with the program and with the poets.
“She’s been an incredible supporter… Having someone like Rosario Dawson watch your work and come to the premiere and celebrate the poets was… was just very special.”
“And I think one of the coolest things was our premiere in the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and Rosario taking the poets down the red carpet and doing the little step-and-repeat and getting
them all, they were just so psyched and geeking out,” Edwards elaborated, echoing his co-director’s excitement. “It was such a great night and they loved it and it was just like, it was a really cool moment and it just kind of just gave a finality to it, ’cause the two of us, we can keep tinkering with that movie forever.
“But it just felt like — finishing that night in Santa Barbara — just felt like, ‘Hey, you know, we made something and we’re proud of it and we’re proud of our Get Lit poets; they’re such amazing people and were just so open and honest and… I just really hope that it can touch somebody, you know? And change somebody’s perspective or change somebody’s life out there somewhere. ‘Cause I think it has the possibility to do that.”
Our Words Collide star and poet extraordinaire Amari Turner reflected a similar sentiment about the production as well as her time with Get Lit. Poised, remarkably thoughtful and wise beyond her years (a saying that I’d never been too fond of, but certainly held its merit here), Turner joined Barrow, Edwards and myself in the all-red screening room accompanied by Diane Luby Lane and Get Lit’s PR specialist, Rachel Falikoff, for her portion of the sit-down. As she entered, the initial shyness carried over from her time on the panel earlier in the night, but she seemed immediately more at ease being among familiar faces for the next section of the night.
I wanted to understand how all of this came together from the insider’s perspective: how a teenage girl could transform from an aspiring poet to a film star, mental health advocate and a scholar all at once.
What took Amari Turner from wishful thinking to certified Get Lit Player?
“It was my… freshman year English teacher who got me, like… she was the director of Get Lit at the school,” Turner remembered, “But I honestly had knew [sic] about Get Lit and Slam poetry from the sixth grade because they have these things called ‘Blitz.’ And I was signed up to go and I went and I watched them and I think I fell in love with slam poetry that I didn’t know existed. And I spent years since then on YouTube, just watching them compete. This is before the competition had extended to middle school, so I was just kind of waiting until freshman year to get to Get Lit.
“I remember going to the LA Book Fair and seeing Diane and it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m really lost. Our
director left. Like, I dunno what I’m doing, but I don’t want this program to die at my school, because I know what it’s done for me.’ Diane was a big help in making sure that… I got all the support I needed at the school.”
And how did her mental health journey come into fruition? It isn’t quite so common to be quite so conscious of self to that extent at those earlier teenage years, in most cases.
“I think when I first started performing,” she stretched out some words as she collected her thoughts, “the emotions were there and the words were kind of there, but in a really convoluted way that I didn’t actually know. I was talking about my mental health. To me I was just like vaguely talking about like ‘a flower growing.’ And I knew what all those words meant to me, but I was really hoping that it wasn’t being perceived that way when I was performing them.
“And I realized, I think my first time performing how it was still touching… people in the crowd, even though I wasn’t openly talking about what I needed to be talking about. And I think that gave me the bravery to be a bit more direct in my poetry and with just the people in my life about the things that I was experiencing. I think it has allowed me now that outlet to use it even if I’m not writing poetry.”
Does this mean there will be more on-screen acting roles for Turner in the near future?
“I am deeply camera shy,” she chuckled at the thought, “so I don’t see myself doing any acting at all, but I don’t know. I don’t perform poetry as much and I think more in my like, studies of English, I’m looking a lot more into the ways words on a page impact people.”
And on what she hopes the audience takes away from Our Words Collide, Turner said: “I think in watching the film and just seeing the true power of storytelling that is really documented through all five of us… I really hope that people find their way of storytelling in the ways that it is powerful for them.”
“I’m writing a thesis,” Turner revealed of her next steps. “Hopefully, in theory, it will be published. I’m hoping for that to be creative. I’m writing about ways atmospheric anti-blackness manifests physically. And I’m looking at black police officers as one of the cites. And then, how black women’s literature provides ways for healing from this.”
Her composure was calm and collected in conclusion: “So I’m hoping there to be a very more
structured, creative part of that. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
The question of mental health is a big one: in today’s society, we’re all aware of how this particular brand of illness can plague the mind, affect the spirit and take many forms — some from firsthand experience and others in dealing with friends and relatives, our closest loved ones. There are no guaranteed answers on how to correct things, but if there’s anything we can learn from the coming generation, it’s that community, self-expression, and the power of words count much more than we might think. While Our Words Collide has finished its festival run, Barrow and Edwards explained that (at the time of this writing) they are talking to distributors for the sake of having a wider release this year, whatever form that takes.