Sundance 2023: Documentary Exploring Nikki Giovanni’s Life and Work Echoes the Beauty of the Artist’s Mind

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.

A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

It’s fitting for a documentary about a poet as evocative and influential as Nikki Giovanni to be crafted from its first moments as an imaginative project merging memory and fantasy—the familiar format of interviews and archival footage intricately interwoven with a mélange of poignant and playful sounds and images that invoke feelings rather than enforcing a specific narrative.

“I remember what’s important,” Giovanni tells us, “and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling’s all about.”

Indeed, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, winner of this year’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, feels like just that: a journey through Giovanni’s memories and experiences, with all the disjointed associations and recollections typical of the human mind drawn together and made into a cogent and beautiful assemblage of an artist’s life. 

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1943, Giovanni reminds the audience that a hard childhood does not necessarily mean she wasn’t happy—and while the film touches on her early years, where she faced an abusive father and eventually had to move in with her grandmother, Giovanni also productively resists delving into too many unhappy memories, choosing to home in on her adult choices and accomplishments.

A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“This film focuses on a singular, unapologetic voice,” writes the Sundance Awards Jury, “and through her story it captures the experience of the collective.”

Giovanni believes in the essential goodness of Black people, and has long used her poetry to offer commentary on politics, history, racism, and misogyny, while always hewing close to the bone of human emotions: love, rage, compassion and belonging.

Going to Mars channels Giovanni’s invocation of space travel as a metaphor for slavery; in fact, the film begins with the epigraph, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.”

Later, she explains the parallel threads of both journeys: the deep, haunting blue of the unknown ocean traversed by the slave ships and the never-ending night of space, the sense that going to Mars and being forcibly taken to America are both one-way trips into the unknown with no possibility of return. And yet, Giovanni also expresses a desire for the agency of space travel, making the choice to go into the unknown and stay. Half-jokingly, she expresses a fantasy of going to space to die in her old age and being left there to float away in peace.

Footage of Giovanni’s television appearances and poetry readings over the years are intercut with her present-day reflections. A famous broadcasted conversation between Giovanni and James Baldwin from 1971 makes frequent appearances in the film. Through it, and other recollections, the socio-political parallels between today and 50 years ago are starkly drawn—from the continued reality of lynching and police brutality to the inherent risk of political activism, the utility of anger, and the need for hope.

A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Throughout the documentary, we also meet Giovanni’s spouse Virginia Fowler, with whom she still resides in a charming house in Virginia with a thriving garden; her son Thomas, from whom she was briefly estranged, although they have reconciled by the time of filming; and her teen granddaughter, Kai, who marvels toward the end of the film about the memorabilia and curiosities that occupy her grandmother’s home shelves and symbolize a rich and complex life. We also see Giovanni reading her poems in front of rapt crowds whom she charms with her humor and shocks with her unapologetic forthrightness.

Seamlessly transitioning from celebratory to contemplative and back again, Going to Mars offers insight into an artist, author and activist that is both wholly engaging and, intentionally, never quite whole—only the story Giovanni wants to tell of herself, a story that’s more than enough.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.