"Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project" Worthy of Jury Prize for Documentary

  • January 23, 2023
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My Sundance 2023 experience began with a chance encounter. Hustling to grab popcorn at Park City’s Prospector Square Theatre before the premiere of Going to Mars: the Nikki Giovanni Project, I came upon the Amethyst Rock Star himself, Saul Williams, in town for a 25th anniversary screening of the film Slam. I was starstruck. He politely declined an interview but knowing that another of my all-time favorite poets was in the same theater confirmed my decision to prioritize this film, one of 12 documentaries from the U.S. competing at this year’s festival. 

The film’s editors collapse time marvelously to juxtapose current day Nikki Giovanni with some of her greatest moments on camera 50 years ago. In the midst of a remarkable conversation with James Baldwin on the public television program SOUL! from 1971, he tells her, “You’re not as pessimistic as you think you are.” This is confirmed when she later discusses the childhood trauma of witnessing her father abusing her mother: “I refuse to be unhappy about what I can do nothing about. I choose not to grieve.” Discussing what storytelling is all about, she further explains, “I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest.” 

The editors include a wide range of emotions—ranging from the somber to the hilarious. Speaking in a church at her aunt’s funeral, Nikki suggests during an unscripted moment, “the penis is gonna go extinct.” The camera pans to shocked youngsters in the pews. She’s still got her edge, no doubt.

Giovanni has compared the experience of black women in America to aliens encountering humans. The filmmakers make it a motif. When it comes to Mars exploration, the poet and self-described “space freak” insists “NASA needs to call black women.” She wouldn’t mind sunsetting her own life on the space station, which she notes is lacking artists. “When it’s time to die, open the door and let me go,” she says, “There goes Nikki!” 

Deft, layered, and complex, Going to Mars challenges viewers in the best way. Giovanni and her work remain open to interpretation, and the film is careful not to make our minds up for us about what it all means. As co-director Michele Stephenson stated elegantly after the screening, “black women’s joy is at the center.” She and co-director Joe Brewster brought ten other members of their production team onstage. They were pleased to return to Sundance after their doc American Promise, about unequal educational opportunities for black children, won a special jury prize 10 years ago. 

Here the filmmakers have drawn an evocative portrait of the woman, her poetry, and her legacy. As Stephenson described it, the film is “a peek into (Giovanni’s) brain” constructed with a very weighty purpose, to tell her story truthfully to her granddaughter Kai. The result is more powerful for including footage of times when Nikki chose not to speak or said no. It’s an intimate film about a personal poet. And yet the impressionistic style, built around moving montages with “all praises to black women,” generates deeper understanding about concepts from Giovanni’s infinite inkwell. Her voice, her imagination, her conviction— they are bigger than the filmmakers, her family, or her fans. As a friend says of Nikki Giovanni onstage at the Apollo Theater in another clip, “she writes in a collective sense, for all of us.”

- Review and photo by Gavin Dahl