Awards Daily talks to directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson about their documentary Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project and what it was like to follow the acclaimed poet for 7 years.
The husband-and-wife team of Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson were shortlisted for not one but two categories at this year’s Academy Awards: One for their Short Doc Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games and the other for Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project in the Doc category.
“Where were we [when we found out]?” said Stephenson to Brewster. “That’s a good question.”
“I had forgotten all about it,” said Brewster. “I had numbed my brain I was so anxious. I Googled and found out we had one. And then a few seconds later, we had another. We are the first couple ever to be shortlisted twice in Doc and Short Doc.”
With Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, the filmmakers gained intimate access to poet Nikki Giovanni, who at first declined collaborating with the duo.
“Her spouse said, ‘I’ve seen these guys’ work, and I think we can work with them,'” said Brewster.
“And ‘That your legacy’s important,'” added Stephenson. “‘We should give it a shot.'”
So Stephenson flew down to meet with Giovanni and her wife Virginia Fowler where they surprisingly “wined and dined” her—not the other way around. Three months after this first meeting, she and Brewster were following Giovanni with a camera crew.
“Getting in the room with her is easy,” said Brewster, “but getting her trust took a lot longer. The beauty is that she would set boundaries. which for us meant that we had to earn the privilege to move past those boundaries. That was our job, and it took a couple of years before we had carte blanche. At that point, she didn’t even ask what we were doing. She didn’t look at the work we wanted to show her. She’d say, ‘No, it’s your art. You do you.'”
“Once she’s in, she’s all in,” said Stephenson.
Nikki Giovanni, The Comedian & That West Virginia Church Scene
For someone who sets boundaries, Nikki Giovanni pushes them herself, in frank conversations in front of audiences across the country. But in one scene toward the end of the film, the sudden passing of her aunt compels Giovanni to get really candid at a conservative West Virginia church where she tells them the earth only has a few hundred years left and that men misuse their penis.
“I had never expected her to say that in a church,” said Brewster. “First of all, she’s telling them about her gender preferences and a respect for abortion and the right to decide. Then, all of a sudden, she hits us with the penis comment. [The congregation was] so polite and conservative, and they were trying to be respectful. But they knew what they were getting because she answered her phone in the middle of the service.”
Giovanni spoke at the church for free that day and continues to receive a lot of requests to speak, with a huge fan base across the country. Stephenson said that when churches invite her, they know they’re going to get more than a poetry reading—“They’ll be going to church even if they’re not at church.” Giovanni leaves her audience satisfied and moved.
“When she’s on that stage, you don’t know what to expect,” said Stephenson. “But something’s going to come out of it that’s golden for us as storytellers. We had a treasure trove of choices that we could make around her performances. We could have put more in, but we had to balance it out with other stuff.”
Giovanni’s surprising comedic prowess completely changed the way Brewster and Stephenson decided to lay out the film, with some creative concepts removed because of this added element.
“The reality is,” said Brewster, “we had all of these things we wanted to do with the editing and archival, but what we didn’t know is that we had a whole ‘nother layer: She’s a comedian. That took some things off of our plate. We removed the animation idea because it was so much, so rich. She’s a storyteller and uses dramatic tension in the way that she speaks to others so that she has a payoff. What we had to do was exploit that. We had additional layers that we hadn’t counted on.”
“The comedic part of her came as a total, nice surprise for us,” echoed Stephenson.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project is streaming on MAX.