January 31, 2023

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Review of ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’: A Living Poet Study

4 min read

The title “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” teases galactic possibilities and plays with the idea of ​​unfinished business. Not the film’s labor — directors Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson create an eloquent and compelling portrait — but its spiky, brilliant subject matter. A luminary of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Giovanni, now 79, continues to address the pain and joy, the anger and resilience of the descendants of the Middle Passage, who know much about uncertainty and perilous journeys.

Giovanni was born in Knoxville, TN in 1943 before moving to Cincinnati, OH with his parents and sister. During summers as a child, he returned to Tennessee to visit his maternal grandparents. He later attended Fisk University in Nashville and now lives in Christiansburg, VA, not far from Virginia Tech, where he was until recently a Distinguished Professor of Writing and English. The recipient of numerous awards, she is in the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame and has been named an Outstanding Woman of Tennessee; A species of bat was named in his honor. And he was a regular on the amazing weekly television series “Soul!”, which for a brief, glimmering moment was to cultural creatives what “Soul Train” would be to music: a rallying call. Among the gems of “Going to Mars” are clips of her and James Baldwin talking in 1971; The conversation was later published in “A Dialogue”.

If the movie had touched on all his achievements, it would have become an episodic doc. Fortunately, “Going to Mars” doesn’t default to conventional conventions on his biographical mission. The filmmakers’ approach reflects a desire to formally honor Giovanni’s poetry (executive producer Taraji P. Henson voices the doc) but also the author’s own reality. If space travel is a desire, aging is a theme. Illness is a theme. He’s still reckoning – with racism, sexism and other oppressions – and in the case of his grown son Thomas, he’s probably reconciling.

That hedging note reflects how filmmakers and their subjects resist cleaning up loose ends. Many times things that a viewer might want to know more about are understated or left unsaid. (Giovanni has written two memoirs and his poems are often personal.) When Thomas, his (presumed) partner, and daughter Kai arrive at a photo shoot in New York City, Giovanni notes that it’s been a while. This comment is a nod to the epidemic, but does it indicate isolation?

The film is equally tight yet transparent about Giovanni and his partner Virginia Fowler, who have been together for 30 years. This doesn’t seem like an evasion so much as a deliberate resistance to explanation, a gesture in keeping with Giovanni’s profession as a poet. When he speaks at the funeral of his aunt, the last relative of his mother’s generation, he mentions their relationship, but it is not a declaration of identity. (As if to support this, the Sundance program’s “Going to Mars” – i”BIPOC,” “women-centric stories” and numerous tags for – “LGBTQ+ stories” are not among them.)

In at least two surprising, revealing instances, Giovanni politely but firmly refuses to answer a question put to him. (One occurs at a public meeting when an audience member asks him to describe where he was on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.) Each suggests a rebuke to relive personal or national traumas he had previously spoken or written.

Like 2016’s “I’m Not Your Negro,” Raul Peck’s film about James Baldwin’s final, unfinished tome, “Going to Mars” responds creatively to the director’s sincere appreciation of his work, and Tera Long and Lawrence Jackman’s deft editing. Greg Harriot’s cinematography offers clear-eyed close-ups of the poet’s face, but then hints at the ethereal with more cosmic, otherworldly double-exposure images. Immersed in the archival, Brewster and Stephenson consider the fluidity of space and time when it comes to memory — both personal and historical — and the here and now. Composers Samora Pinderhughes and Chris Pattishles evoke these gestures, as does the sound design. This visual and auditory flight has a stimulating richness; They seem to derive from Giovanni’s moments of introspection and reflection.

Although he doesn’t ride a spaceship, Giovanni makes enough treks that one can redub the film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with a blink of an eye. He flew to Atlanta for a Q&A with author Pearl Claes, whom Giovanni once babysat at events in New York City, West Virginia and Philadelphia. Among the audience at the Philly event was fellow black arts poet Sonia Sanchez. The documentary comes at a time of resurgent interest in the Black Arts and Black Pride movement.

In 2021, when NASA named its headquarters after pioneering black female engineer Mary Jackson, Giovanni practically participated in the celebration. The space agency tweeted a line from her poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars”): “A trip to Mars can only be understood through black Americans.” The poem proves a tonic for the billionaire’s insatiable ambition, and in the film, Giovanni reiterates his yearning for adventure, even if it means death in space. Meanwhile, he seems to have found his kin among the young, pierced, tatted, oh-so-brave Afro punks. At a gathering in Brooklyn, he caused a stir as he posed for selfies with fans who knew what “Back to the Future” could yield.

“You know, I’m not friendly,” he told Johnetta Cole at an event at the Apollo Theater early in the film. He is something more important than that. “Going to Mars” shows him still having the adventure of survival, taking along those willing to do the work.

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