Runtime: 102 minutes
Directors: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
By Sarah Manvel
Three times in my life now I have seen an event at which I was present for a second time, in a documentary. The first was a concert, the second was a vigil for a murdered woman. The third was when I took a friend to hear Nikki Giovanni speak at the South Bank Centre in London. She gave a speech – although with Ms Giovanni, her most ordinary pronouncements can have the weight of a formal address – about how space exploration ought to be led by black women. The importance given to that speech, around which is wrapped the movie’s finale, is because black women have the greatest expertise in thriving in violent alien landscapes, of loving the children the aliens force them to birth, and of building a beautiful, nurturing culture out of the most barren landscapes. It’s those kinds of insights that make someone a poet.
“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” is hooked around the lessons of the recurring theme of space travel in Ms Giovanni’s work to demonstrate why she is indeed one of the greatest poets of the current moment. Certainly her work articulates something intensive about the American experience – and most directly of the female black American experience – that has struck an unusually strong chord with audiences since she burst onto the scene as a university student in the late 1960s. The upheaval of the times and the resultant appetite for fresh new voices the traditional canon would not have considered enabled Ms Giovanni’s work to be read by a wide and understanding audience. Over twenty of her poems, spanning her career, are read in voiceover, as directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson flick back and forth through time to examine Ms Giovanni’s career as well as her life, going back to deepest childhood and up into the current moment.
The cameras were there when Ms Giovanni learned the last of her aunts had died, and as she began a tentative reconciliation with her adult son and his teenage daughter. (Ms Giovanni lives with her wife in a home full of museum-level artifacts of the segregation era, and the teenager expressed a suitable combination of respect and contempt for being surrounded by so many antiques.) However, the sections which follow Ms Giovanni as she teaches college undergraduates, travels to various public speaking engagements, and visits friends are the weakest part of the film, not least because of their vague air of privacy invaded. The recorded performances and interviews – most notably one for British television in 1971 in which she and James Baldwin interviewed each other – from earlier in her career are stronger, mainly because they were always meant to be seen. It’s an interesting dichotomy: it’s the work that matters, but audiences are more interested in the life which gave life to the work. And it’s clear that by now, Ms Giovanni has heard every ridiculous question that it’s possible to be asked, and she is makes it firmly apparent what her limits are. Those frustrating interactions and the snap with which Ms Giovanni shuts them down are the only time it doesn’t feel like she is performing. This is the privilege of experience, but it’s hard to read a closed book.
So the question this begs is the obvious one: why has the movie been made? It is a retrospective of the hard work she has done over the course of her career; a reminder of her greatest hits with the promise of the final tour on a different planet to come. Sometimes, especially when it’s someone who has not previously enjoyed their due, this is enough, but it’s unfortunate that, even with the wish to enable the new generation of poets to travel further than she herself has done, “Going to Mars” falls flat. When a film’s subject says early on there are many things she doesn’t choose to remember, and the point isn’t pressed, we remain trapped on the surface of the story. And while there is quite a bit to explore on top, everyone knows the most interesting experiences are to be uncovered in the depths.