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Sundance 2023 Review: ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ Is Simply Majestic

Sundance 2023 Review: ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ Is Simply Majestic

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is a journey through the mind of brilliance. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson (American Promise, The Changing Same) have done more than just film a documentary about a world-renowned American poet; they have crafted a brilliant and nuanced experience of Black life through the lens of a genius who happens to be a Black woman. Like Nikki Giovanni’s poems, the film is a heartfelt work of art compelled to speak the truth no matter the consequences.

Brewster and Stephenson have woven a masterpiece including images from the civil rights movement, interviews with Nikki Giovanni throughout her seventy-four years on this planet, film archive footage of 20th century Black folks living everyday lives, TV interviews with the poet, and readings of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry by the author and actor Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), creating an impressive mosaic of an activist artist’s life. 

The editing in this film is sublime. The cinematography of the current-day scenes of Going to Mars is stunning, and editor Terra Long and her team’s editing is innovative, creative and draws the audience in to fall in love with Nikki Giovanni over and over again. There are moments where the archival film is played backward and forward, tricking the eye into this pattern, unbroken as the voiceover made poignant revelations, which left me dumbfounded.

A moment in the film follows Giovanni on her 2017 A Good Cry book tour and focuses on the love of Giovanni’s fans. Black men and women with tears in their eyes stand up in packed audiences giving testimony and thanks to Giovanni for inspiring them to continue on. One woman stands and says she wrote a letter to Nikki Giovanni when she was ready to quit college, saying she was on the seven year plan. Giovanni wrote back telling the woman to continue on. Now that same woman has been an elementary school teacher in Newark for twenty years. To see the smile on Nikki Giovanni’s face as she embraced her fans is a reflection of what a gift being an artist truly is. We aren’t here on this planet alone, and the artist’s talent allows the space for people to believe in themselves. Magic.

The film captures Nikki Giovanni’s directness, courage, mind numbing talent and insecurities that make you want to lean in and learn more about one of the most fascinating artists of our time. In the film, recent-day Giovanni is seventy-four years old and in a time of reflection. There’s a moment where we see young Giovanni on an old-fashioned 1970s TV set reciting poetry as her current self sits in a chair in spotlight all in the same frame listening to her younger self. Being able to see seventy-plus years of a person’s life on screen frames how quickly a life flies by. Yes, we know this, but the filmmakers are able to reflect it on screen in a way that made me feel grateful, present, and inspired to live moment-to-moment as if this one could be my last. 

“Space travel is in our blood,” Giovanni declares on stage at AfroPunk Brooklyn as she states how much she loves Black women and how society should ask Black women to travel to space to figure it out because we have always been space travelers, stolen from Africa to live as an alien in America and not just survive but thrive. Giovanni emphasizes throughout the film the fascinating similarity she finds between the slave ship and the space ship. This is reinforced by visual transitions of ships leading the mind to question, “Am I looking up at the bottom of a slave ship breaking the waves from deep water, or is that a spaceship gliding through space? 

Every moment of this film is pristine. The story is clear, inspiring, and concise. Time flies by, and I was disappointed the film was over yet felt full of hope and optimism for the future. 

Nikki Giovanni is comfortable in her skin and does not and never has suffered fools gladly. If a question is redundant, she politely chooses to tell the interviewer exactly what is on her mind directly. You could say this came with age, but no, as a young poet the fire in her eyes is the same fire you see now, just a little bit different. 

Our society tends to infantilize older adults, forgetting the humanity and wisdom our elders possess. Giovanni owns her physical state and is relaxed into the fact that her body is aging. Illness takes its toll. Having survived a seizure, she doesn’t remember moments of her past that others are eager to revisit. She simply speaks the truth about what she can and cannot do anymore and sets clear boundaries with a smile of wisdom.

Oh, that we can all have the privilege of growing into our elder years with such self-knowing. Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is a poignant film to be treasured and watched over and over again particularly in those moments when inspiration is deeply needed. What a gift.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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