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A color collage of Nikki Giovanni. An elder Black woman shown in partial close up, wearing glasses with her hand resting on her chin/lips. She is positioned against an abstract bright orange background.

Observed Online Reviews

The Loneliness of Black Genius

In 'Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project' and 'Little Richard: I Am Everything', filmmakers probe the public versus private personas of their larger-than-life subjects.

By Beandrea July

From Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (2023), dirs. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, all images courtesy of Sundance Institute

During the Q&A after the premiere of the documentary Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, a moviegoer asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson about the portrayal of Giovanni’s loneliness in the film. “I could feel it,” they declared. I felt a collective breath of recognition echo across the audience. 


Giovanni nods to this in the middle of one of her poetry readings, several of which the film captures. This one takes place at the Free Library of Philadelphia to a packed crowd that includes Sonia Sanchez down front:

“Because anybody that has any talent in this room is lonely. Whether you can sing, whether you can shoot a basketball, whether you can play football, I don’t care what it is […] if you got a talent, you’re lonely. And so what you want to do is go on with your life. Because at some point you’re gonna find somebody who is as lonely as you are and then you will build your community.” 

In Little Richard: I Am Everything, directed by Lisa Cortés, which also premiered at Sundance this year, a god-fearing Little Richard expresses something similar: “I don’t have nobody but me and the great God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Both documentaries are probing character studies. Going to Mars leans into Giovanni’s personal obsession with space travel, creating a documentary that itself looks and feels like a cosmic tour of the planet that is Giovanni’s mind and oeuvre, while Little Richard endeavors to be a rousing reclamation of the roots of rock-n-roll through a historical deep dive into the life and music of the icon born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. 

A black and white photo of Little Richard. A Black man stands on stage with one leg stretched into the air. He is wearing a suit and a bee hive-esque hair style, and is standing in front of a band only partially visible.
From Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023), dir. Lisa Cortes

Both films find clever ways to make a visual impact that reflects the ethereality of their larger-than-life subjects. The visual language of Going to Mars is particularly masterful. Cinematographer Greg Harriott’s extreme close ups of Giovanni’s face at rest and the animations of outer space transposed on her likeness project abstraction onto her humanity. The documentary explores reversal and disappearance too. We see Giovanni walking a vacant lot where her childhood home in Cincinnati once stood. Her likeness disappears into thin air leaving only her voice and the verdant green grass. And we see her fade, disappear and reappear as she sits upright on a bed in her Virginia home. Both disappearances evoke teleportation, Giovanni making her way to outer space and back before our eyes. 

The interstellar visual vocabulary of Little Richard: I Am Everything centers around animations of stars in the sky and the freestanding sequins and jewels that were a hallmark of Little Richard’s fashion. Cortés beautifully weaves this shine into the fabric of her scenes, subtextually heightening the story without the renderings feeling tacked on. However, when the film sidebars with modern-day artists doing covers of Little Richard’s songs—like the soulful country singer Valerie June or even the heavenly John P. Kee—they feel like forced re-enactments, distracting from the cohesion of the overall film. 

With Giovanni and Little Richard’s own voices narrating their stories, Brewster, Stephenson, and Cortés supplement personal images of their subjects with a variety of archival images of everyday Black life. And both documentaries are wonderlands of archival footage, elegantly sequenced. Going to Mars is especially adept at weaving Giovanni’s life story together with a larger story about Black America. For example, the film makes meticulous use of the famous 1971 recording of the dialogue between Giovanni and James Baldwin, coming back to the conversation multiple times throughout the film. It grounds the story in one of its major themes: Giovanni’s characteristic ability to speak her truth even when it comes up against accepted ways of thinking about Blackness in general and Black struggle in particular. Giovanni appears comfortable in poetic solitude at times, while at the same time clearly wrestling with isolation. As fans give her their babies to hold and snap endless selfies with her, one senses her loneliness ringing loudest when she’s among the biggest crowds.

A photo of Nikki Giovanni. A Black woman with close cropped white hair stands on a stage with a book in one hand and the other raised. A large crowd is listening to her speak.
From Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (2023), dirs. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson

For Little Richard, on the other hand, loneliness was intertwined with his decision to be openly gay as a popular musician, at a time when this was extremely rare. The man who had no qualms about writing an ode to the joys and pitfalls of anal sex—yes that’s what “Tutti Frutti” was originally about, the documentary points out— was the same man who disavowed his queerness at various points in his life, stating that he believed the Bible forbade him to be gay. A moment of real heartbreak occurs when the documentary shows Richard quipping to an interviewer: “God let me know that he made Adam be with Eve not Steve.” Cortés imprints Little Richard’s self-loathing upon us by using this clip in an early sequence of the film and then, near the end, returning to it, so we have to sit with the contrast. This Little Richard, the one fixated on Old Testament religion, is dressed in a drab beige suit and dons a tempered afro, looking nothing like the ethereal maestro of stage and song who helped craft what we know today as rock-n-roll. The difference sits heavy on the psyche, calling out for present-day empathy for the bygone era Little Richard endured.

In our current age, Giovanni is able to speak about being a lesbian without shame. In a scene that takes place in a church pulpit, she hypothesizes the extinction of the penis, while also affirming her marriage to fellow academic Virginia Fowler: “I’m very fortunate to have somebody who loves me. I don’t care what anybody has to say about it.” Fowler is interviewed in the film and we see Giovanni give her a sheepish peck on the cheek in their kitchen. Giovanni never matches Little Richard’s sexual candor though: any specific thoughts about their relationship or Giovanni’s relationship to her own sexuality are kept private. Brewster and Stephenson portray a Giovanni whose boundaries are firm, leaving in scenes where she chooses not to answer theirs and other interviewers’ questions.

Consequently the film has to fill in uncomfortable gaps in the story, including another narrative thread in the larger story of loneliness: family estrangement. When Giovanni’s granddaughter comes to visit, it is notably the first time she has ever stepped foot in her grandmother’s home, due to years of estrangement between her grandmother and her father, as Stephenson pointed out during the Q&A. Mother and son spent years repairing their relationship, which eventually led to the visit. Little Richard, meanwhile, was kicked out of his family’s home by his father, a minister, nightclub owner, and bootlegger who didn’t accept Richard’s queerness and femme presentation. (Navigating the desires of the flesh and the spirit apparently ran in the family.) He was only welcomed back after his music started being played on the radio.

A photo of Little Richard. A Black man stares off camera. He is wearing a colorful button-down shirt, partially open to reveal his chest hair, and sports a quaffed bee hive-esque hairstyle.
From Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023), dir. Lisa Cortes

Both of these films ask us to ponder the ups and downs of greatness. Pedestals can be lonely places afterall, and both films are richer for embracing this truth in the stories of these two luminaries. And thankfully, Going to Mars: the Nikki Giovanni Project and Little Richard: I Am Everything offer a spaciousness around the wounds and sharp edges of their subjects that’s as wide as the big open sky, trusting that there’s just as much room to celebrate as there is to grieve.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project and Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.