Nikki Giovanni wants to die in zero gravity.
“We don’t have any poets in space,” she says in a speech featured in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” a documentary about the elusive artist, directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson.
Giovanni would like to travel to the space station to record what she sees, adding that, when it’s time for her to go, she can simply be released into the ether. This desire — part jest, part genuine — drives the biographical project, in which the directors try to capture Giovanni’s legacy and her Afrofuturist vision for Black women.
“Going to Mars” combines archival footage of Giovanni and moments in Black history, images of space and present-day interviews and speeches to paint an expansive picture of the poet’s evolution from young firebrand to elder. Giovanni posits that viewers should turn to Black women to learn about surviving in space because of our ability to survive all the hardships thrown at us on Earth. Throughout, the scenes are punctuated by her poetry, read by both Giovanni herself and the actress Taraji P. Henson.
The documentary offers only what the poet is willing to give. And Giovanni is a challenging subject: She has firm boundaries, and there are questions she refuses to answer. “You want me to go to someplace that I’m not going to go, because it will make me unhappy,” she says in response to a question about her childhood. “I refuse to be unhappy about something I can do nothing about.”
Yet other times Giovanni’s work speaks for itself. She won’t discuss how she felt after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, for instance, but what follows is a powerful rendering of her poem “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” in which she expresses anger over the injustice. Here, and in general, viewers must fill in their own blanks.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project
Not rated. Running time: 1 hours 42 minutes. In theaters.