“A lot of things I don’t remember, I choose not to remember. I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about,” said poet/writer/activist/educator Nikki Giovanni.
In this very enlightening homage, by documentarians Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson, the icon and intellectual gets the respect she deserves. Years of speaking truths, reflecting on her life and discussing racism, sexism, classism and other social issues, with the intelligence of a scholar and the wit of a genius, brought her to this place.
Clips, interviews and photos are well assembled and paced (editor Terry Long). The low-key format doesn’t expand the documentary genre on any level, but that’s a good thing in this case. The filmmaking is never a distraction. Everything the directors do supports and surrounds Giovanni with the tools she needs to tell her life story. A portrait painted in words that are as evocative as those in any Toni Morrison or Bernice McFadden novel.
The characters that revolve around her seem larger than life, though they may just be family, friends or colleagues to her. The issues she discusses seem monumental, as if told from a pulpit. They crescendo in moments like the footage that captures James Baldwin and her exchanging tales and opinions like griots preserving history. As Giovanni reflects on her time on this earth, she expresses her experience in cadences, sermons and anecdotes that seem almost Biblical, or newsworthy, or reverent, or all of that.
When she gets personal; when she recollects her abusive dad and tough times—the outer world seems in the distance, and the inner Giovanni comes into view, deep in thought and expressing hurt. She’s learned to persevere or at least cope and has lived to tell the tale: “You have to love people who say to themselves I’m going to find a way to smile.” She’s woefully truthful about her challenges raising her son. She’s alarmed about Martin Luther King’s assassination: “An act of war.” She’s a resigned mother, and a prophet too.
Then there are the precious times when the Fisk University graduate and American Book Award-winner shows why she’s a world-famous poet—someone with the keen ability to distill the most complicated thoughts down to simple, winsome proclamations: “I believe the most beautiful poem ever heard is your heart racing.”
In Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, the spotlight shines magnificently on Giovanni. This perceptive documentary is a brilliant archivists give-back to Black America’s poet laureate, while she is still here, still able to smell, hold and see them.
It’s a complete treasure, precious and profound, both the documentary and Nikki Giovanni.