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In the opening scene of Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s search documentary Going to Mars: Project Nikki Giovanni, poet Nikki Giovanni showed her cards: “I don’t remember many things,” she said as images of a glittering galaxy and archival footage of the poet as a child flashed across the screen. . “I remember what is important and I make up for the rest. That’s what the story is all about.”

Brewster and Stephenson did not question Giovanni’s proposal; They find purpose in it. Her words become a statement of intent (This is my story), a warning (My boundaries are firm), and a rebuttal of formal conventions (How do you open widening the boundaries of the biography?). In that last question, Giovanni is whispering to Audre Lorde, the poet who coined the term biomythography to describe her book. Zami: New spelling of my name, a text that combines biography, history, and mythology to tell a more accurate story of her life. It is an attempt to acknowledge a truth of personal narratives: They are a contradictory, disjointed mixture of what we know and what we choose to remember.

Going to Mars: Project Nikki Giovanni

Key point

An interestingly impressive biological documentary.

Place: Sundance Film Festival (American Documentary Competition)
Directors: Joe BrewsterMichèle Stephenson

1 hour 42 minutes

Going to Mars: Project Nikki Giovanni wanted to let Giovanni choose how she is remembered without sacrificing loyalty to linearity and mainstream appeal. So the documentary, anchored by the subject’s vibrant personality, blends its experimental inspirations (Raoul Peck’s i’m not your black) with the task of being a composably readable portrait (Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ Toni Morrison: My pieces).

Working with the challenge of the poet’s growing health problems and fading memory, Brewster and Stephenson bring recent interviews with Giovanni into conversation with her poetry (played by Taraji P. Henson reads). This technique connects the 79-year-old writer with versions of her own past, allowing us to witness her growth and absorb the depth of the poet’s honesty throughout the years. An archive clip of a young Giovanni reciting her 1968 poem “Nikki-Rosa,” in which she talks about how Black childhood is presented exclusively in such sad ways. no matter what, introduced at the beginning of the document: “they will/probably will talk about me having a rough childhood,” Giovanni says, “and never understand how happy I used to be.” It serves as a prelude to essential biographical details, instructing us on how to read them.

Giovanni was born in 1943 and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee and Cincinnati, Ohio. Her younger years were defined in part by conflict with her father, someone she could not see as an enemy. In one poem, she calls herself a witness to his actions towards her mother; In a radio interview, Giovanni talks about why she moved in with her grandmother. “Obviously I’m going to kill him, or I’m going to move,” she said.

These glimpses of what Giovanni suggests was an abusive childhood are sure to cast her preoccupation with space in a new light. Perhaps the need to escape – both from her home and from state violence against Blacks – prompted her identification with the afterlife, which arose into the Afrofuturist theory. about the Negro going to Mars and identifying her as an Earthling. There are times when filmmakers try to urge Giovanni to be more specific, an attempt to reinforce this theme, but the artist’s line remains steadfast: “You want me to go somewhere I won’t go. because it would make me unhappy,” she said at one point. “I refuse to be unhappy about something I can’t do anything about.”

With that assertion, appearing early in the film, Go to Mars works around its reluctant protagonist, building depth through its form. Brewster and Stephenson found freedom in experimental techniques, including the liberal use of spatial imagery and poignant excerpts of Giovanni’s poems, to accentuate their subtext. In an edited scene, the poet, bathed in a blue light, gets out of bed leaving behind her own ghost, reinforcing Giovanni’s boundaries between her public and private self.

One wish that Go to Mars remains in these experimental areas, expanding the visual constraints of the biographical form in a way that honors Giovanni’s disclaimers without leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. But the film returns to portrait mode in earnest, which, while amusing, doesn’t satisfy lingering questions about the artist’s thoughts on pan-Africanism (triggered by a similar sequence). for less context about her old views on South Africa); her relationship with her son (which we delve into through a combination of archival interviews and more recent observational footage); and she struggles to get a tenured position.

Brewster and Stephenson spent seven years working on this impressive project, and their dedication and effort has shown. Her interviews, student speeches, and dialogues with her partner and niece are all precious artifacts — proof of her wit, vivaciousness, and humor. Giovanni. Where Go to Mars surely success is to highlight the poet’s brilliant personality, unwavering confidence and commitment to the community without ever sacrificing herself.

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