‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ DOC NYC Film Review – A Creative Look at an Incredible Mind

‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ DOC NYC Film Review – A Creative Look at an Incredible Mind

Unconventional people deserve to have their stories told in unconventional ways. A poet is rarely the subject of a film, and typically not until long after their work has been able to be digested and scrutinized in new ways by future generations with a better appreciation for their innovation and style. But it’s nice to see someone celebrated while they’re still alive, and that’s the case with Nikki Giovanni, who takes center stage in Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, a creative exploration of the now eighty-year-old poet’s influences and influence on the world around her.

Giovanni’s career has spanned numerous decades, first as an active and respected part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and later for her commentary and activism on many social events and issues. She has a way of speaking that shows her comfort with words, both in her writings and as she expresses them aloud. Like many, Giovanni hasn’t always been welcomed by critics and was sometimes seen as pushing the envelope too much, but such responses only further propelled her to dig deeper and extract great meaning from that which she wrote.

This documentary is billed as traveling “through time and space to reveal the enduring influence of Nikki Giovanni.” While it doesn’t take a deliberately nonlinear approach, it also doesn’t feel tethered to being chronological in a way that would detract from painting a full picture of Giovanni not only based on milestone moments from her life. Its title refers to Giovanni’s belief that more Black people should be involved in space travel, and her attempts to bolster that by making the case for participation directly to NASA.

Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson, who have worked together before and regularly spotlight worthwhile topics related to the African-American experience, have a fascinating subject in Giovanni and a wealth of material from which to draw in order to assemble a film. The finished product feels like a less psychedelic version of Moonage Daydream, built from footage that includes Giovanni speaking before crowds and passionately conveying the words she has written, be it by reading her own work or making a speech that urges others to listen and take action.

It’s easy to become swept up by the allure of Giovanni’s determined energy, and the way in which she approaches the many circumstances she has lived through over the course of her time in the spotlight. She is intellectual and thoughtful, and has a real intention behind all that she says. This film offers a pathway into who she is and the effect that she has had on those who revere her, and that should be evident simply in watching the poise, clarity, and confidence she embodies when she steps up to the microphone, knowing that people are there to listen to her.

This documentary doesn’t necessarily break boundaries or play against the rules, yet it feels like a film that’s been shaped to fit its subject rather than the other way around. Who she is and the causes in which she has been involved chart its course and structure, rather than starting from the beginning and looking at every part of her life in a cause-and-effect, narrative fashion. Giovanni is clearly someone exceptionally interesting with a great deal to say, and this film offers a celebration of her for those already familiar and an open and distinct pathway into her brainwaves for the uninitiated.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is on the Features Short List at DOC NYC and screening November 16th at the Village East Cinema in NYC.

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