This review of Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is a slight departure from our typical review style. After editor discussions, we decided to frame the review as vignettes in conversation with Giovanni’s own words from the documentary, mirroring some of the play with form that “Going to Mars” achieves so well on its own.
“A lot things that I don’t remember, I don’t choose to remember. I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest.”—Nikki Giovanni
These are the first words Nikki Giovanni speaks in Going to Mars, a documentary released on Max this month dedicated to her life’s work. It’s simple, a flick of empowering creative snark embedded in “I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest” that’s fitting to the poet laureate of Black girls who love themselves. It’s also a mask. Later in the documentary we learn that a seizure following lung cancer has left Giovanni’s memory rattled.
When an on-stage interviewer asks her where she was on April 4th 1968 (the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered), Giovanni responds, “I don’t remember.” Pushed more, she offers genuinely, but firmly, “I’m sure it’s a great question, I… I already answered it. I can’t take it any further.”
Following the exchange, a voice over of Taraji P. Henson, an executive producer of Going to Mars, reads Giovanni poem “Reflections on April 4, 1968”: “The assassination of Martin Luther King is an act of war. And some honky asked about the reaction. What do you people want? Isn’t it enough that you killed him? You wanna tell me how to mourn? You want to determine how I, a lover, should respond to the death of my beloved? May he Rest In Peace.”
Giovanni muses that her shortened memory is a blessing. Going to Mars presents a supplemental argument to her conclusion, when you’re one of the greatest living Black artists, one of the living greatest artists period, of the last 60 years — your work speaks for itself.
“I’m what they call a ‘personal poet.’ And I try to bring out the personality of my life, you know? That my family was a good family. Because they are Black people and Black people are good people. And from that goodness, we can create the revolution. So that the revolution isn’t a reaction to whiteness, but a forward thrust of Blackness.” — Nikki Giovanni
I often say that I wrap myself in my Blackness like a blanket. Blackness is my security. My comfort. I’ll be honest that I’ve not always excelled at loving myself, but loving Black people? That’s no more of a question than my body’s ability to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. My mother taught me that, whispered loving tributes pressed into the lotions she used on my baby soft skin before my first steps. And did I mention that my mother’s favorite poet is Nikki Giovanni?
It shocked me, really, how much watching Nikki Giovanni reminded me of my mother and my aunties. The visceral reaction I had in seeing them in her hands, in the warmth and clarity of her voice. There’s a clichéd Che Guevara quote, “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” But I’ve found it near impossible to speak into life the depth of love that comes from being parented by people who were first radicalized in the 1970s. People who once scribbled Nikki Giovanni poems into the margins of their notebooks.
In “Nikki-Rosa” Giovanni writes, “And I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me, because they never understand Black love is Black wealth. And they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while, I was quite happy.”
I’m always amused at how surprised white people are to discover — Black people don’t think about them much. Whiteness is a governing societal norm, but that is not the same as being a certainty in our homes or guiding light from which we find our North Star. No one has been better equipped or able to express that than Nikki Giovanni, who’s dedicated her life to being the words unspoken on our tongue.
Nikki Giovanni: “There has to be a way to do what we do and survive, which to me seems to be missing.”
James Baldwin: “Sweetheart, sweetheart. Our ancestors taught us how to do that.”
Of course, Going to Mars includes Nikki Giovanni’s infamous (well, at least infamous to YouTube children of the internet) sit-down conversation with James Baldwin. Along Giovanni’s poems, sometimes performed by the poet herself and sometimes performed evocatively by Henson, her conversation with Baldwin is the only other continually returned to narrative device in the documentary.
Anyone who’s seen the conversation would understand the choice, Giovanni and Baldwin’s spark captivates. Originally filmed in 1971, Baldwin would have been 47 years old at the time —16 years after the publishing his groundbreaking Notes of a Native Son and 15 years after the publishing of Giovanni’s Room. Conversely, Giovanni is 28. James Baldwin sat at the dais during the March on Washington. Giovanni describes her participation in the Civil Rights Movement as a young person as, “We could tell our grandmothers, ‘we can’t do it.’ Or we could change the world… it was way easier to change the world.”
Here are two Black queer icons, both standing at the precipice of life’s intersections, Giovanni at her rise and Baldwin transitioning into becoming a community elder. They may spar with their intellect might, but they also take boundless care of each other. The resulting dance is breathtaking.
While young in her years, in this moment Giovanni is already exhausted. She’s rightfully preoccupied with wondering what does sustainability and love look like for Black women engaged in this kind of work. Baldwin, who lived large passages of his life by finding his fresh air and freedom in France, away from other Black Americans, doesn’t seem to have the answers that Giovanni is looking for. But I think Going to Mars answers it for her instead.
Giovanni’s spouse Virginia “Ginny” C. Fowler, Emerita Professor of English at the University of Virginia (where Giovanni also holds the same position), and co-producer of Going to Mars, shares a well lived and loved in, if not slightly cluttered and quirky, home with Giovanni and their dog. Though she says little directly in the documentary itself, Fowler’s mere constant, steady presence at Giovanni’s side speaks volumes. In fact, it’s Fowler who expresses that Giovanni’s relationship with her son, Thomas, strained over the years. They’ve since mended and through their now-friendship, Giovanni gets to spend time with her granddaughter, Kai, who clearly lights up her life.
“When are we gonna get those folks to let you come down, so you can learn how to play bid whist and fry some chicken?” Giovanni playfully teases Kai after noting how tall the 13-year-old has gotten. Maybe it’s because my family’s game of choice is spades that I knew “let me love on you, so you can always know that love” is what’s said underneath.
“I’m a big fan of Black women. ‘Cause in our blood is space travel. Because we’ve come through an unknown, to an unknown. And that’s all that space travel is. If anybody can find what there is in this darkness, it’s Black women.”— Nikki Giovanni
The New York Times called Going to Mars “an Afrofuturist Space Odyssey,” which is fitting because I’ve seen few other documentaries like it. Rather than live in a pure biographical space, Going to Mars collages archival footage of Giovanni with well-known moments of Black history, woven between images of orange moons, ice-purple planets, starlight swooping through at warpspeed with rainbow streaks in its wake. Giovanni spends quiet time with her family, or she speaks on stage to a crowd of hundreds. Young women come up to her to tell her that she’s made a difference in their lives: they’ve named their babies after her (yes, at one point Giovanni does take a picture with said baby, and yes I did cry), they stayed in school, found courage to leave abusive families, gotten PhDs. Giovanni reads her famed “Ego-Trippin” at Brooklyn’s iconic Afro-Punk festival to a constellation of Black people with sparkles sprayed into their afros, electric blue lipstick, and crop tops with their tits hanging free. Over a span of 60 years, her poetry never stops narrating. All the while, she’s imagining another world for us.
Given everything I just said, it might feel surprising that what I most admired about Going to Mars is its restraint. Nikki Giovanni is a fan of Black women. In fact, she says it multiple times. I believe that, more than anything, that’s what she wants to be known for. She so loves Black women that she never waivers that our strength can only be matched by the stars themselves.
And maybe that seems lofty, but Giovanni speaks of it merely as fact.