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Memory & Legacy: Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson on their Nikki Giovanni documentary

Still from "Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project"

“The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.”

Legendary poet Nikki Giovanni’s revelation is a launching pad for an inspiring exploration of her life and legacy. Through a collision of memories, moments in American history, live readings of her poetry, and impressions of space, Giovanni urges us to imagine a future where Black women lead, and equity is a reality.

The Afro-futuristic lens honors Giovanni’s complexity and transports us on a journey through Black liberation from the perspective of one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved writers, a profound artist and activist. Next stop, Mars.

I spoke with directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson about the creative process of documenting legendary poet Nikki Giovanni in their film Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, and how we are all reckoning with the aging process.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Jamara Wakefield: Before we get into the film, I would love to hear about your personal relationship with Nikki Giovanni's work. What makes this project personal for you?

Joe Brewster: I grew up in a period where we were coming to terms with our identity, Black pride in South Central Los Angeles. I remember her on Top 40 radio, KGFJ. I remember being inspired by the work.

Michèle Stephenson: For me, it's more about this coming-of-age process in college in the mid ‘80s, and learning about her work, having read before that the autobiography of Angela Davis and Ntozake Shange's work. The three of them, especially Nikki and her poetry, sort of anchored me in thinking about my own multiple identities and what it meant to stand up for yourself and listen to your own truth. She was part of that coming of age process in college for me.

And for so many people and for so many generations. Michèle, this film feels like we're witnessing Nikki Giovanni in conversation with herself. We see her watching archival footage with her granddaughter. We see and hear her talking about memory. “In so many ways,” she says, “I've changed.” Tell me about the creative decision to work from this point of view and the importance of this conversation around aging, especially for Black women.

Michèle Stephenson: From the very beginning, we wanted this to not be a conventional biopic about the chronology of a significant person's life. We wanted to center the film around her voice and the impact of her poetry. But also we knew as we were starting to spend time with her that the question of legacy was really present in the air, both for the people who were following it, but for her specifically. So I think being able to honor her point of view, her unapologetic nature, but her ability also to embrace her age is a very empowering thing for us all at whatever age. I feel like the question of legacy, but also the question of embracing the stage of life, which she does in such a graceful way that teaches us. We felt it was important to center that as well and so we go back and forth between her looking at her younger self and other material, but also the questions of her own health and aging and how she's handling it with grace.

You mentioned Ntozake Shange. I interviewed her several times before she passed away. This topic of how our bodies change and how we reconcile our memories and, and how are we always who we've been and yet how are we something that's evolving and ephemeral, it certainly comes up in her work and I know that audiences will recognize that through line. Joe, can you talk to me about memory? It seems to work its way into almost every scene. How we remember our lives and ourselves and how Nikki Giovanni is wrestling with memory. There's a really poignant scene where she's answering questions in an auditorium and she says, so clearly, “I can't remember.” It felt like such an important moment because it felt so honest about the ways that we remember parts of our youth and parts of our present, but there are also some things that perhaps we can't recall. Can you talk about memory?

Joe Brewster: Well, there are a couple of things. On one hand, Nikki has early onset dementia. So she's struggling with memory. Instead of moving away from that, we decided to incorporate it in the piece. I think memory comes up in another way. We are documentary filmmakers and our mission is to stop the erasure of our history. We can't stop the erasure of Nikki Giovanni's memory, but what we can do in a backhanded way is make sure that her contribution is remembered. We like to think that a work like this will keep around for a few more years. But also we'll bring her voice and her legacy to a different generation who may not know her. I’d echo something that Michelle was talking about earlier. We are committed to telling the story in a creative way that's different. We didn't want to go year by year in the chronology of her life. We wanted to make it fun. You've seen those PBS documentaries where they take you through... They remind me of the classroom where you're learning the history of the United States and you have the voice of God. We wanted to challenge ourselves. And what she gave us is what we thought was that.

Michèle Stephenson: If I can just add two things. There's also a level of agency that she takes in this refusal to remember or to mention what she might remember or not. I think that's sort of key to be able to respect her decision. Whether she knows or not, it's up to us to think about it.

But her refusal again, lays in this question of agency for Black women in terms of how do we remember and what we decide to share or not to share. I think it shows a level of empowerment. The film also plays with memory. In some ways, her loss of memory is a metaphor for how we play with memory and how we sort of collapse time in terms of what she says yesterday and what she says today or what she had said 50 years ago, just as relevant now and can be juxtaposed and create potentially new meaning for us.

Joe Brewster: Well, on a couple of levels, there's the master narrative, which is a white supremacist narrative, that colors everything we see. She chooses not to remember, but discuss things in a way that dishonors that she said, we've been here, we're going to be here, in the future. But also that way of thinking, which was very positive for me as a teen listening to it, is the way she deals with the trauma in her life, which, spoiler alert, is her relationship she had with her father. She chose to say, “I'm gonna remember some of the good things.” I think that kind of way of dealing with trauma may not be the best, but sometimes it's all you got.

Absolutely. One of my favorite pieces of James Baldwin's writing is his “The Artist's Struggle for Integrity,” where he talks about only the poets hold the truth. And the poets have to get up every day and speak that truth. I thought about that, Michelle, when you said her refusal. It’s the position of the poet to be the voice for really symbolically, for many, but certainly authentically and autonomously for themselves. That's certainly powerful, coming from a Black woman's body who has lived the life, historically, that she has. Joe, can you talk to us about Afrofuturism? Explain to us what it is and why this film can only be told through a Black lens.

Joe Brewster: There are many different definitions of what Afrofuturism or African futurism is, but I like to think of it as the past communicating with and informing the future. I think you see this in many ways in the film. It's not necessarily a trip to Mars we're going to. That futurism is a trip to equality. That futurism is a trip to community, which is a healing space. You are going to go on that ride. I would recommend that your audience prepare for this film. if they chuckle a little loud, prepare for that. If they have a tendency to cry or don't, I would bring tissues. I would be prepared to feel very good about you, your wife, your mother, your grandmother.

Michèle, did you want to add to that?

Michèle Stephenson: I think he expressed it. I think if we look at this idea of the past informing how we engage with the future is at the essence of the poem “Going to Mars,” which serves as the spine of the film. In that poem, Nikki parallels the middle passage with the trip to Mars that only people who have gone from an unknown through an unknown into an unknown and have engaged with aliens in the Western Hemisphere, really have the substance to take that trip into space. It's really about how the past has equipped us to be the leaders of our future. It’s a very powerful metaphor that Nikki embodies Afrofuturism in some ways. She's a historian by training, by education. So it's interesting how space is really important to her, but that historical lens is never lost.

Many of our listeners will be familiar with the name Samora Pinderhughes. Can you tell me about that experience of working with them, in terms of crafting the audio landscape for this film?

Joe Brewster: On more than just a few occasions, people are commenting on this score. We met them many years ago. I met them at Sundance, who probably worked with them on Black Alpha Human Rights. I'm a psychiatrist. I trained at Harvard years ago, but my Black mentor was a Pinderhughes and I found out that’s his grandfather. We worked with him and it was an amazing, awesome experience, I think not just because of his music, but his personality. He is into criticism, he's into examining how one note can change the scene. We were talking a little bit about with him an Afro Atlantic lens in the music, so that we wanted to take his music and have that music have the polyrhythms, a call and response with what's going on in the scene and the feeling that you wanted to move your body a little bit. That is a very African-centered cultural experience. What we said to him is that this film is not following the great European masters. It’s following our masters, which is a musical tradition that goes back millennia. I think that's why people are responding to the film in the way it's church.

Michèle Stephenson: We grounded it in that sort of jazz influence that Samora Pinderhughes and his composing partner, Chris Patishall, who's also a jazz pianist, have together. One thing I want to add is that it was a truly transformative collaboration for us. We enjoyed every moment of iteration, of listening, of discussing what we needed to do to make it hit, what needed to hit. For me those are the highlights of the filmmaking process, when you're able to collaborate with others so that what comes together is more than two plus two equals four. It’s exponentially better, and that happens when you have an open heart and spirit together and there's trust. We can't wait to work with them again. I have to say that I'm very in love with the score, precisely because precisely of the foundations that were used to. To make it around our Black Atlantic specificities.

Joe Brewster: They gave a concert here at Sundance for, like 300 people.

Michèle Stephenson: It was 800 people. And it was like going to church too.

Joe Brewster: They took the soundtrack and they brought poets and actors from three or four different films. They read Nikki's work or their own and Samara and Chris accompanied them.

Michèle Stephenson: There was some free styling going on there. It was quite magical.

I love that. I love it all to be in the room. The really interesting thing about jazz and filmmaking is that it does require a collaborative process. This idea that I'll just get up and make a film by myself or I'll just get up and compose a jazz album by myself. It doesn't work like that. It really is about listening and storytelling and really like vibes and like ciphers and being open and being present.

Joe Brewster: I would add that there are a few scenes where his sister kind of stole the scene. We had to kind of turn that down a little bit.

Michèle Stephenson: Elena Pinderhughes was the flutist in many of the pieces in the film.

It's a family affair. Those Pinderhughes folks. Well, we love them here at WBGO. Michèle and Joe, these are precarious times. It's been a difficult last few years, If anyone said they're not disoriented, just from the last few years of life… Yet you as creators and artists and visionaries and visual poets, you've made a piece of work that will meet people where they are. What gift do you hope that this film offers people as they're watching and sorting through their own humanity?

Joe Brewster: I'm just gonna speak for myself. This film was healing for me. I think if just one or two people can feel that and then pass that on, we create something special. Our goal really is not just passing it forward. We're respecting our ancestors. I say that with a clear idea who those guys are. My mom made me read Jet magazine, Nikki was turned on the radio and it was for a reason. I just want to pass it on, and honor them.

Michèle Stephenson: I completely agree with you. I think from a very personal point of view, the making of the film and the sharing of the film, and the watching of the film, I feel community. That's what I feel. Even the sharing here has been extremely healing in terms of the communication with the audience afterwards. My process of engaging with Nikki, with Samora and Chris and other people, there was a healing process in it. The working on the poetry and the poems that were highlighted in the film were about, anyway, for me healing personally, but also highlighting community. However complex our relationships may be, at its core, community is everything.

Joe Brewster: I think you talk to Nikki about these times, or watch the film, you're going to go away with the thought that, “Oh, we're gonna be all right.” As Baldwin says in the film, “Our ancestors taught us how to deal with this.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jamara Wakefield is an arts and culture writer and creator currently living in Newark.