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‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ Review: The Iconoclastic Poet Gets a Complicated Documentary

Sundance: Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson sometimes struggle to show the full breadth of Giovanni, but she's already shared so much of herself with the world.

A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”


Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson are capturing Nikki Giovanni in a state of transition. The trailblazing Black woman poet and activist whose words inspired the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, is making an effort to share her deepest, most personal emotions. Now in the winter of her life, Giovanni contends with seizures, whose every occurrence depletes her memory. Scenes of her bedroom bathed in blue hues, the overbearing sound of static, the numbing overexposure of light, along with compositions that see her body blinking in and out of reality, visualize her harshest fight. Her health problems, however, haven’t dimmed her sharp wit, her charismatic personality, and her unflinching independence.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” an uptempo documentary that matches the poet’s idiosyncratic personality, sees her promoting a new collection of poetry entitled “A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.” In it, the writer draws upon the raw emotions of her upbringing — a violent father, a loving mother, and a supportive grandmother — and the recent deaths of loved ones and cherished colleagues for a vulnerability that differs from the cool, relentlessly revolutionary image (bedecked in a luminous afro and colorful dashikis) that she cultivated throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

And yet, the tension in “Going to Mars” twists between Giovanni’s greater desire to embrace the vocal introspection that arrives as one ages and the wall that rises when she says, “I remember what’s important and I make up the rest.” While the latter certainly refers to her health, it further binds with her storytelling ethos, which both opens and hampers the tangibility of the film.

It’s a limitation the filmmakers often collide with, and sometimes lean toward, by virtue of a woozy score mixed with extreme closeups of Giovanni, all employed to demolish said wall. During the film, we follow her through her whirlwind travel schedule as she appears for talks and radio spots while promoting her book. There, her mischievous humor takes center stage; her buoyant observations about culture, Blackness and space travel — the belief that NASA should make Black folk the primary explorers of Mars — jump down from the rafters.

Giovanni opens her front door to viewers (literally), allowing the audience a look inside her home. Her enviable library brimming with books, her collection of segregationist relics like “white only” and “black only” signs, and her copious collection of giraffe figurines. We’re brought as close to Giovanni’s personal orbit as she will allow.

The documentary, however, lacks the thesis needed to interpret Giovanni. We know her study of thought — her belief in Black womanhood, her overarching theory of the scars of slavery engendering Black folk with the specific ability and empathy to adapt to alien environments — but in what ways does her work further inform how we interpret not just the body of her writing, but her life?

That distance probably springs from Giovanni’s desire for her poetry to do the talking, and further arises from her objection of being defined. In one scene, Brewster asks Giovanni what it felt like to consciously wake up at 11 years old, only for Giovanni to swerve from the question: “You want something I’m clearly not ever going to give you or anybody else so you can find another question.” Which presents a tall task for Brewster and Stephenson: The bold resistance that makes Giovanni an engaging subject, ironically renders her cinematically enigmatic too.

It’s why, when mentioned, we’re also kept at arm’s length from her controversial thoughts on apartheid. That segment moves so quickly, in fact, we’re denied the ability to inspect and interpret what might be gleaned from Giovanni’s viewpoint on the matter. A similar fault appears in the inelegant way the filmmakers fold in Giovanni’s journey for tenure — covered in the briefest of fashions — in relation to her meeting her partner Virginia Fowler, the woman and department head who ultimately brought her to Virginia Tech University. It’s as though they were looking for some way, any way, to fully integrate Fowler (who mostly remains in the background) into the larger narrative.

These blemishes do not detract from the filmmakers’ keen ability to marry Givanni’s poetry, spoken by her, with the visual language of film. Her poem “Rosa Parks,” for instance, is further emboldened when the righteousness heard in Govanni’s voice is matched with images of Pullman porters, Emmett Till, and Parks. When Giovanni isn’t performing her poetry, actress Taraji P Henson subs in. Henson doesn’t attempt to imitate Giovanni’s delivery. Rather, she reaches for the essence of the writer’s cadence. It’s a sterling attempt by Henson, but an edge of meaning is lost whenever she speaks instead of Giovanni.

The poet’s intellect is such that we feel cheated whenever “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” doesn’t put it fully on display. It’s why, whenever clips from her conversation with James Baldwin on “Soul!” appear, we’re immediately transfixed. The full two-hour conversation, if you haven’t seen it, sees two titans of thought communing, enrapturing us in their melodious speech and their nimble thoughts. It’s why, whenever Giovanni cheers Black life and Black existence, we skyrocket with pride. It’s why her connecting a trip to Mars with the Middle Passage bewitches us.

And it’s why, when the poet sits down with her granddaughter Kae, the pair watching a clip of her speaking — thereby allowing grandmother to pass down her resoluteness, confidence, and knowledge to her granddaughter — we feel closest to her love.

While “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” doesn’t wholly breach the bubble surrounding Giovanni, by the end, Brewster and Stephenson, through tender immersion and lyrical invention, inspires viewers who have maybe never read Giovanni to seek out her poems, the one that say everything about the spirit of the woman who cannot wholly be captured on camera.

Grade: B-

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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