GOING TO MARS: THE NIKKI GIOVANNI PROJECT, A Doc Days 2023 Filmmaker Conversation

Interview by Todd Savage, Journalist and Doc Days Co-founder.
Featured image by Heather Leah Kennedy.

GOING TO MARS: THE NIKKI GIOVANNI PROJECT screened Sunday, May 28, at AFS Cinema as a part of Doc Days 2023. Winner of the 2023 Sundance Grand Jury Award, the documentary charts the long career of one of America’s greatest living poets, orators, and social commentators. Our Doc Days co-founder Todd Savage talked with the filmmakers, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, about what Nikki Giovanni has been to their lives and their vision for the film. This interview transcript is edited for clarity.

I wanted to start and ask you each, like, what was your first exposure to Nikki Giovanni and what do you recall of it?

Joe Brewster: My exposure was listening to her on the radio in Los Angeles as a kid. She was popular on the radio, and I knew something was different — that this was not rhythm and blues. It was something else. I had a sense of euphoria when I heard her read a poem which said to me on popular radio that I was important and I have a history and I should be proud of the work that my ancestors have done. 

Michèle Stephenson: For me, I’m part of the Caribbean migration to Canada. I’m of Haitian descent. My earliest memory of Nikki is really part of a larger coming of age and looking for Black female icons and artists and writers during my college years. For me, college was a moment to solidify my sense of identity to a larger Black diaspora, Caribbean diaspora, and beyond, and I took a lot of different courses in the space. She was exposed to me as I was reading her poetry as well as works of Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison and other Black female artists of her generation. It was part of this very intentional search for connection in college.

How did you reach out to her, and what was your process of kind of gaining her participation? I would expect she had been asked many times.

Joe: There are thousands of videos of her online. She has spoken a few times a week for the last 50 years at universities around the country. So it was our surprise that there was no major work. We just asked her, and she said, “Yeah.” She said, “I never say no.” That is not true.

She did refuse to answer a few questions in your film. 

Joe: Not answering that made it a better piece because it forced us to come up with other ways of getting at her emotionally and delving into her, her psychological makeup. We had to do it using poetry. Because everything emotionally that she refused to say in an interview, she said in poetry one way or another.

Michèle: She’s actually a very accessible person. She’s taught at Virginia Tech for decades. Her spouse, Ginny, is her scheduler and sets all of her schedule in arrangements. We had a Zoom conversation, and they said, “Yeah, come on over and meet us.” I went down for a weekend, and they opened the bottles of Champagne and partied with their friends. I arrived at the right time. We clicked and they said, “Yeah, let’s make it happen.”

With so much material to review, how did you approach telling the story of an artist with such a large body of work?

Michèle: That took a very long time, figuring out what was important. We started with gaining a fuller knowledge of the timeline of her life but also what was significant about her work during these different decades. There was a clear impact and pattern to the evolution of her work and to the kind of statements she was making about society and personally, too. Those impactful moments in these different decades of her life informed us — knowing that we were not going to make a traditional biopic. I call it an anti-biopic. It’s a poem itself, a poem that honors the impact of poetry but, in particular, her artistic impact and process. The artistry and its impact is what drove us. We explored with our editor what the framing would be, and that’s when “Going to Mars,” her poem itself, became our glue from which everything emanated.

Joe: We are always faced with this dilemma with every film. We have a mountain of clay, not just a little bit of clay. The question is, how do you shape that clay? Michèle is driven by her background and a need for equity. I was a psychiatrist, so I’m interested in her makeup. We basically began to explore. We also understand that we have to be patient. We knew we wanted to play with the form. We knew we wanted to play with time and space. We knew that the documentary was being changed in terms of how you tell the story. Now, everything including the kitchen sink can be used to make a documentary. 

Michèle: You can’t cover someone’s full life in a documentary. You have to decide, what is the message? What is the theme? For us, the poetry was central but also our visual treatment of it. There would be a singular theme that would be running through the film so that the film itself was a poem. We even cut in stanzas. We’ll build these stanzas of our own with their own mini themes that we might be able to move around and figure out a larger visual poem.

Why do you think this is a good moment for this film and sharing Nikki’s work and introducing her to a new audience?

Michèle: I think any moment would be good to introduce her. We took seven years to make the film. People in the space where we were raising money didn’t really know Nikki, so there was this extra hurdle. It took the time that it took, and I like to say that, you know, all of those are opportunities for us. The time that it took helped us to perfect our craft and to honor her work.

Joe: This film is evergreen. What we’ve noticed is that every audience that we’ve taken the film to has been emotionally moved. We’ve gotten messages back, “I can’t get it out of my mind.” 

Michèle: This idea of evergreen is a powerful one for us. Poetry has an evergreen nature to it if it’s strong. We read poems from the 18th and 19th century, moments of Shakespeare. We hope that this resonates beyond the specificity of our historical moment as well and that there’s a level of our common humanity that can be recognized for people who come back 50 years from now to experience the film and the words that Nikki has to say. I think even the films that reflect the specific historical moment, whether it’s her MLK poem or the poem on violence, these are all things that have been around since millennia in terms of how do we resist? How do we react to violent oppression, how to react to the death of people that are dear to us? These are human reactions that I think transcend specific historical moments.

It was interesting to witness Nikki’s interactions with her granddaughter and the link between generations.

Michèle: This idea of passing it on to the next generation became this theme because of her reflections on her legacy. We touched upon the fact that her granddaughter hadn’t really had that close of a relationship with Nikki. And Nikki was really hungry for it. We were able to capture the very first moment — her granddaughter is at Nikki’s home — which we’re very grateful to have been able to document. The granddaughter’s fresh look became just golden for us in terms of storytelling and looking at the circularity of life and what does it mean to pass on to the next generation? There’s a level of sort of interstellar aspect to it too. I don’t want to leave Mars out or space out — and I don’t want to get too philosophical — but it was being with Nikki at this moment in her life with the opportunity to be able to document what this next generation could mean and what that embodies through her granddaughter. 

Joe: There’s all of this conversation lately about Afro-Futurism and, and for me, her granddaughter is the future. She is Afrofuturism. It’s the next generation. It was so poignant that I am always in tears when she appears in the film. We understand that this is a passing of a baton.