THE STORY – A look at the life of poet Nikki Giovanni and the revolutionary periods in which she wrote, from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter.
THE CAST – Nikki Giovanni, Taraji P. Henson & Virginia Fowler
THE TEAM – Joe Brewster & Michèle Stephenson (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
For the past 55 years, Nikki Giovanni has been at the forefront of the American poetry scene. From her first acclaimed collection of poems, “Black Feeling, Black Talk,” in 1968, Giovanni’s work has spoken to the Black experience in general and her own Appalachian history in particular. Unlike many poets of her stature who create art out of the public eye, Giovanni has chosen a different path. Fueled by her desire to bring her poetry to the people, she became a public figure, living out her true persona as a proud Black woman who doesn’t give a damn about what others think of her—an attitude she carries through to this day. And it is her no-nonsense approach to life that provides the spark in her new film profile, “Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.”
To be sure, “Going To Mars” has all the requisite elements of a celebrity documentary these days: filming the subject at home, being honored at public events, plus home movies and clips from the subject’s past. But what filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have done here is take those elements, rearrange them like a puzzle, and create a documentary that’s familiar enough in mood but experimental enough in structure to reflect the complexities of Giovanni’s own writing style.
The events of “Going To Mars” are framed around a book tour for Giovanni’s latest poetry collection, “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter.” On the road, she is treated like a rock star by her audience, which is largely (though not exclusively) Black women who wait in long lines to tell her just how her poems empowered them when they were younger, creating interactions with her readers that Giovanni clearly cherishes.
Fortunately for Brewster and Stephenson, Giovanni is one of the rare poets who is not shy about appearing on television, and clips of the young artist standing beside leaders of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements in the early 1970s demonstrate the esteem with which her words were held in the Black community at that time. (Clips of the young Giovanni going toe-to-toe with a clearly entranced James Baldwin could make for a glorious film in itself.) And her determined embodiment of the strength of Black women served as a key source of inspiration to audiences everywhere.
Now nearing 80, Giovanni’s strength of character is still in force, but her body has weakened. A survivor of both breast and lung cancer, she now suffers from seizures, which have an effect on her memory, although she admits that there are things about her life that she has chosen to forget. “I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about.” On other parts of her early life—which include violent men and loving women—she shuts the door, explaining that such subjects take her to an unhappy place for which she can do nothing. She does open the door just a crack to introduce her spouse, Virginia Fowler, son, Thomas, and granddaughter, Kae. Still, despite Brewster and Stephenson’s very best efforts to deliver the full story, we suspect that the picture of Giovanni, whom we see, is only as complete as she chooses it to be.
Where we do get Giovanni’s true spirit is in her poetry, particularly in the author’s own readings. Though her voice as she reads in those ’70s film clips is clear and strong, today, even with a bit more wavering in her timbre, her voice is even richer, reflecting an experience of a life well-lived. (For those key poems for which there is no recording, Taraji P. Henson, who also executive produced, provides the voice.) By her own admission, however, there’s been a recent change in her work. Reflecting on her health and advancing age, her poems now reveal a caring side, with poems that show a vulnerable woman ready to share the love in her heart (as the film displays in her tender interactions with her granddaughter).
Finally, Giovanni, who has taken on projects all her life, has a new one: the repopulation of the residents of Earth on the planet Mars. A self-described “space freak” throughout her life, she argues that because of humanity’s abuse of the planet, “Earth is just about finished,” and the establishment of new civilizations in the solar systems may be the only answer. And for good measure, she argues that the first people who will be able to communicate with Martians will be Black women because of all the hardships they have endured on Earth. Whether she’s being serious or facetious or metaphorical, it’s impossible to tell. But when Nikki Giovanni tells you she’s going to Mars, you’d better believe it.