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Portrait of a Poet – The Hollywood Reporter


In the opening scene of Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s searching documentary Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, the poet Nikki Giovanni shows her cards: “I don’t remember a lot of things,” she says as images of a glittering galaxy and archival footage of the poet as a child flash onscreen. “I remember what is important and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about.”  

Brewster and Stephenson don’t question Giovanni’s proposition; they find purpose in it. Her words become a statement of intention (This is my story), a warning (My boundaries are firm) and a rejection of formal conventions (How do you stretch the boundaries of biography?). In that last question, Giovanni is whispering back to Audre Lorde, the poet who coined the term biomythography to describe her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a text that combined biography, history and myth to tell a more accurate story of her life. It was an attempt to acknowledge a truth of personal narratives: They are a contradictory, fragmented mélange of what we know and what we choose to remember.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

The Bottom Line

An enjoyably impressionistic bio-doc.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Directors: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

1 hour 42 minutes

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project wants to let Giovanni choose how she is remembered without sacrificing an allegiance to linearity and mainstream appeal. So the documentary, anchored by the vivacious personality of its subject, blends its experimental inspirations (Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro) with the duty of a compositionally legible portrait (Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am).

Working with the challenge of the poet’s mounting health issues and fading memory, Brewster and Stephenson put recent interviews with Giovanni in conversation with her poetry (read by Taraji P. Henson). The technique connects the 79-year-old writer with past versions of herself, allowing us to witness her growth and to absorb the depth of the poet’s honesty throughout the years. An archival clip of a young Giovanni reading her 1968 poem “Nikki-Rosa,” in which she talks about how Black childhoods are exclusively rendered in depressing ways, is featured at the beginning of the doc: “they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood,” Giovanni says, “and never understand all the while I was quite happy.” It serves as a prologue to the requisite biographical details, instructing us how to read them.

Giovanni was born in 1943 and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Her younger years were partially defined by conflict with her father, a person whom she stops short of describing as an enemy. In one poem she calls herself a witness to his actions against her mother; in a radio interview, Giovanni talks about why she moved in with her grandmother. “It was clear that either I was going to kill him, or I was going to move,” she said.

Glimpses into what Giovanni suggests was an abusive childhood inevitably cast her preoccupation with space in a new light. Perhaps a need for escape — both from her home and from state violence against Black people — fueled her identification with the otherworldly, which blossomed into an Afrofuturist theory of Black people going to Mars and her identification as an Earthling. There are moments when the filmmakers try to nudge Giovanni to be more specific, an attempt to strengthen this thread, but the artist’s boundaries remain firm: “You want me to go to someplace that I’m not going to go because it will make me unhappy,” she says at one point. “I refuse to be unhappy about something I can do nothing about.”

With that assertion, which comes early in the film, Going to Mars works around its reluctant protagonist, building depth through its form. Brewster and Stephenson find freedom in experimental techniques, including a liberal use of space iconography and keen excerpting of Giovanni’s poems, to highlight their subtext. In one edited sequence, the poet, bathed in a blue glow, gets out of bed leaving the ghost of herself behind, reinforcing Giovanni’s boundary between her public and private selves.

One wishes that Going to Mars remained in these experimental zones, stretching the visual constraints of the biography form in a way that honors Giovanni’s refusals without leaving viewers with more questions than answers. But the film makes a dutiful return to portrait mode, which, while enjoyable, doesn’t satisfy lingering queries about the artist’s thoughts on pan-Africanism (activated by a relatively context-less segment on her old views on South Africa); her relationship to her son (which we dip in and out of through a combination of archival interviews and more recent observational footage); and her struggles to get a tenure-appointed position.  

Brewster and Stephenson spent seven years working on this impressionistic project, and their dedication and efforts show. The interviews, the speeches she gives to students, and the snippets of conversation with her partner and her granddaughter are all precious artifacts — evidence of Giovanni’s wit, verve and humor. Where Going to Mars undoubtedly succeeds is in spotlighting the poet’s blazing personality, her unwavering confidence and her commitment to community without ever sacrificing herself.

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