I’m going to keep my intro brief because I feel filmmaker Michéle Stephenson speaks to the truth of her film “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” which she co-directed with Joe Brewster, in more of an eloquent way than I could. So this interview is going to be mostly comprised of her words rather than my own. Just as she reflected on Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, I reflect on her words of wisdom. I’m so grateful for this film, and grateful for Nikki Giovanni. Nikki Giovanni is a poet that speaks to Black history with a reimagining of what could be. It’s beautiful.
“Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” screened as part of the New Orleans Film Festival and is coming soon to HBO and Max.
Can you talk about how you met Joe Brewster and how your two perspectives worked together on this project. Also, how did you get Nikki on board with the film?
The collaborative process between Joe and myself is very fluid. We don’t have these designated roles. Sometimes there are projects when I’m directing and he is producing, and vice versa. But when we’re co-directing and co-producing, it’s very fluid, so there aren’t any kind of rules. The one thing that keeps us going creatively and as a unit is the full transparency and vocation that we have. I think that is the foundation. We always challenge each other, and we’re not afraid to do so, which means there is quite a bit of arguing. But it’s really all in the way of pushing each other to be better on so many different levels. That’s how I would describe it.
In terms of how we met, we both come from previous careers. I come from law, and Joe is a psychiatrist. I actually met him in New York right before I was going to start law school as a second career. When I met him, he was transitioning out of psychiatry into fiction film. I started helping his production for his feature film, “The Keeper,” that I co-produced. While working on this project, I wanted to quit law school, because I got so passionate and in love with the filmmaking process. I didn’t know if that was something I could do, following my passion and completing law school, but he encouraged me to finish my education.
We don’t come from wealth, so it seemed like a necessity to have something to fall back on in case it didn’t work out being a filmmaker, and we would need these second professions to support us along the way. So I continued in law, mostly around human rights law and social justice. And then he encouraged me to pick up a camera to work in documentary. I did my first short film when I was in law school, and just kept on doing work while I was doing legal work as my day job.
After I produced Joe’s second fiction feature film, I directed my own feature-length documentary. So we kind of started out supporting one another’s work in different ways and then it molded us into doing both roles together. I think that came from our feature documentary that we co-directed, “Slaying Goliath,” where we more deeply collaborated as directors and producers. Before that, we were just supporting each other’s work. So that’s how it’s been going in and out of our collaborations.
With Nikki, we were coming out of “American Promise.” Every film Joe and I work on together needs to be a new challenge. I feel like even though we’re very invested in the politics that we make, we’re also artists, so we want to challenge ourselves in different ways around the practice.
When “American Promise” finished, it was more of an observational film with some interviews. But it was the vérité that kept the story together really beautifully, as well as the nature of the film. From there, we wanted to experiment with archival footage, and initially we thought that we would focus on a musician that we loved. We soon realized that the licensing of music is so prohibitive, and we even felt that with the short film, “Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games.” It’s a real challenge, and if you are doing something independently, it’s not really the way to go. Then we heard Nikki in an interview on NPR. That sparked our conversation, and Joe was like, ‘Why don’t we do it about a poet? Nikki Giovanni has been so impactful. Let’s see if she’d be willing to do that.’
Initially Nikki wasn’t that crazy about the idea. She felt that documentaries that are made about people are often about people who are dead. Ginny (Virginia Fowler), her spouse, did research on who we were. She was thinking about Nikki’s legacy and where she’s at in her life and thought the project would be a good thing. Ginny was able to convince Nikki to come on board. I actually went out and traveled there one weekend in September of 2015 to meet them. I think we both seduced each other and got along really well. Three months later, we came with the first camera crew in early 2016.
So the film took seven years to make, which makes sense because of the pandemic. But can you talk about the road blocks you faced during production and how you overcame them?
The biggest challenge was money, quite frankly. I mean, I know there was a pandemic, but it took seven years because we had to morsel together the support, the funding. We would often go to investors and other people who didn’t know Nikki. So it was the obstacle of gatekeepers, people who had funding but didn’t know Nikki and didn’t recognize her value or at least weren’t open enough to understand the impact she has on women and the Black community. That was the first obstacle. That’s why we didn’t get the funding we were expecting before the pandemic. Because again, we started back in 2015 from when we first met. And then the pandemic didn’t start until 2020, so at that point, we were done with most of the shooting by then.
Luckily, an investor came on board, a Black producer and investor with his own production company, Tommy Oliver of Influential Films, who knows Nikki and her impact. He joined Catalyst back in 2022. We met him and then right away he said, ‘This is exceptional and Nikki is an exceptional person I want to help. I want to see this through.’
When you have issues of funding, time becomes your friend. That obstacle becomes an opportunity because time allowed us to experiment with form, to think about how this film could be like a poem that is an homage to the work and the impact it has made through poetry. We show how Nikki’s poetry speaks to her lived experience, without it being a biopic. That was the other thing that we wanted to challenge ourselves with in terms of thinking about profiling artists, which was sort of the anti-biopic. We intentionally decided that this film would not have interviews with other people who knew her. We wanted the work to speak for itself, and for us to be in conversation with the work as artists and as filmmakers. We wanted to find what we could bring to the table to be in conversation with the impact of this poetry.
As far as how Nikki’s story was concerned, it was also all connected to her poetry. What are the building blocks that make an artist, and who they are in that way, and how they express themselves?
So time became our friend, and I would say if this film had taken three years and not seven years, it would not have been the same film, because we would not have had the time to be editing and thinking about the form in our heads.
Another obstacle, which I wouldn’t really say is an obstacle, is we didn’t know how much access we would have to Nikki’s archive. We were ready to engage with whatever we were able to get. But it turns out we did not have access to any of her private archive, which she has been storing since the age of 28 at the Gauntly Center at Boston University. And no one is supposed to see that archive. She sends out boxes every couple of months of her personal material, and it’s very well logged and organized. I think that she is the only person from her generation of artists who is so organized in terms of the personal material of that period. The caveat is that no one gets access to that until she dies.
We tried, but when Nikki says ‘no,’ it’s ‘no.’ But again for us, it is the art of filmmaking and production. There are always these kinds obstacles and challenges. You don’t make progress if there isn’t. What are you supposed to do with that? For us, what it became was an opportunity to look at the whole archive of Black communities across the country. To look at ourselves as different families, and ourselves reflected through the archives that exist of us all, right? Whether it’s us or other institutions, or other videos that have been donated. So we pulled those and what ended up happening was that we were able to create a whole album, a collage of Black America and the Black community that spoke to her personal poems. Then I think what ended up happening is we saw ourselves reflected in the poetry and through the imagery, these collages of all types of families and people. So I feel that in some ways, that allowed us to see ourselves more directly reflected in the poetry.
If we had constrained ourselves to everything that Nikki has, in terms of her material or her specific family, it may not have resonated in the same way for us. You know what Jeanette Cole says, “She writes for all of us.” So the visual imagery had to be of all of us.
Can you talk about Mars as a metaphor, and how that relates to the Afrofuturist movement?
I like to be careful with my language because I feel it’s been co-opted, kind of commercial, but I think at the essence of what some people call Afrofuturist ideas is Black speculative ideas, which really start with the past, right? How does the past really, for us, inform ways of re-imagining a future? So Nikki, in that waym is the quintessential Afrofuturist before that term was even a thing.
Her proposition is that Black women are the best suited to go to outer space and settle on Mars because of the middle-passage, because we the folks of the Black diaspora left an unknown, which was Africa, gone through an unknown and landed in an unknown and had to deal with aliens to keep our humanity and our negotiations and relationships with these aliens, which were the settler colonialists and slave owners.
So the idea that is ingrained in our DNA is to embrace the unknown and that allows us to keep our humanity and to be human with others, right? And that’s the energy that needs to go to outer space, not the conquering, capitalist energy, but this energy of a fueled humanity, and an understanding of community. That’s what needs to go to outer space if we are going to survive as a species, as Earthlings which she terms. So it’s really about understanding and thinking about what our ancestors went through, and how that is a blueprint for us to reimagine a future.
What do you hope people see in this film?
All films are kind of Rorschachs, right? And that’s the beauty of what art is. You build something that feeds your soul first. For me, “Going to Mars . . . “ and the work we did feeds my soul in a way that is different every time I see it. More importantly, I see myself reflected in this story. I see myself connected, and it confirms my own humanity. If that’s something that others are able to grasp onto, then I think as an artist, I’m able to do my work.
Nikki says it when she is speaking to students. The essence of art, being an artist, and being a poet, is really about sharing what’s inside of you, and expressing it in a way that hopefully transcends rational thought and affirms what it is to be human. Or affirms in some way our lived experiences.
I think that is all I would say about that, but as a piece of art, everyone is going to come to it with their own baggage. Hopefully they are going to come out of the film with something that has changed for them.