A guest review by Judith Nelson
Nikki Giovanni, born in 1943, is one of the best known African American poets; her reach is global. She is an iconoclast, activist, educator, and writer. She appears to embody conflicting elements. This documentary lovingly weaves these emotionally related conflicts together acquainting us with the complete woman.
Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have created a space in which Giovanni speaks for herself, speaks her mind, and explains her belief that Black women are destined to become space explorers. Going to Mars is her analogy for the middle passage, so Black women have already experienced an alien place and race.
Themes, not chronology, are the format of this film; scenes show Giovanni alternately young and old. The back and forth is seamless and the message is consistent because Giovanni speaks for herself. No one describes her to us.
What really dominates this documentary is her personality and spirit. We see her talking to public audiences, thus demonstrating her popularity. Occasionally, her words are unexpected. To a church audience she mentions penis directly; the expression of some young members is priceless! To another audience she explains her choice of treatment for breast cancer. “The tit had to go.” Laughter ensues.
We see her in interviews with James Baldwin and with Ellis Haizlip, where she is consistently thoughtful. We see her with family members. We see her in her wonderful home library.
She recites her poetry at critical junctures, giving us an emotional connection with her and a deeper understanding of her work. A few readings are dramatized through voice-over narration by Taraji P. Hensen.
In 1984, Giovanni was accused of undermining American Civil Rights leaders’ efforts to protest apartheid in South Africa. She was against apartheid, but did not see an effective movement coalescing on this side of the ocean, so did not participate in demonstrations. Her decision arose from her pragmatism, a trait that causes many to see her as complex.
Giovanni tells us that she was born into a stormy marriage where she witnessed her father abuse her mother, but she refuses to be a victim. “I chose not to grieve.” Her counsel: “One must step out of the parents’ relationship.”
Other memorable quotes: “Remember what’s important and make up the rest. That’s storytelling.” “Duty is the best word.” “Know who you are. If you don’t, you risk becoming what you don’t want to be.”
Nikki Giovanni chose to be happy. We should follow her example.