Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni Films Create Infinite Good Art

Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni Films Create Infinite Good Art

Almost without fail, whenever you talk about a famous older work of art, someone will feel the need to qualify it by saying, “It’s really good.” As if good art dies or somehow becomes unintelligible when it reaches a certain age, and it cannot stand as a pop culture document of its era as it is supposed to. It is reductive.

But this thought came to mind while watching “Judy Blume Forever,” a new documentary that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that examines the life and social impact of the young adult author.

As directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok explore in the film, Blume rose to fame with the seminal 1970 book “Are You There God? I’m Margaret.” It’s a coming-of-age story about an almost 12-year-old girl who is fascinated by her changing body, friends, boyfriends, sex, faith and getting her first period.

It is written in the first person and the title character speaks frankly to his young and curious readers, asking the same burning, seemingly rhetorical questions that are on their minds. It was one of the few books of its kind that addressed the things children weren’t allowed to think about, much less say out loud. So, of course, they came to him.

Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. She published her most famous work, “Are You There God?  It's me, Margaret,
Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. She published her most famous work, “Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret,” in 1970.

Jane Tarbox/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Parents and other adults forbade it, even challenging and banning the book over the years since its publication. But the children needed this intimate dialogue with a young person who got it – even though Margaret came from the mind of a 32-year-old at the time.

That dichotomy is at the heart of “Judy Blume Go Deo”, which explores the questions of youth, age and what makes a work so loved by people young and old as “Is there a God?” It’s Me, Margaret,” a book that solves simultaneously and infinitely, as one person points out in the film.

Much of that is answered through personal interviews with Blume, now 84 years old. She reflects on being a young mother of two in white suburban New Jersey, becoming increasingly miserable as a stay-at-home wife who began to realize that she had much more to offer than being a homemaker, and that what was expected of her and so on. many other women like her at the time.

Writing books was a way of freeing herself as a wife and as a younger self whose deepest thoughts were suppressed in a society and home that did not encourage them. It was also a way to get in touch with her own children, who were going through some of the same things she did at her age.

Judy Blume's writing was beloved by fans - and sometimes controversial.
Judy Blume’s writing was beloved by fans – and sometimes controversial.

Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

So did other books – including “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Blubber” and “Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself” – that pushed against the grain of censorship and its more popular and accepted portrayals. girls and women.

As “Judy Blume Forever” highlights in her books, she has addressed cycles of women’s oppression and tumult that are as relevant as ever when Roe v. Wade and the list of banned books is still a matter of debate.

Blume fought for herself, along with the voice of women and young adults, through her books and interviews, in response to the angry questions posed by both male journalists and politicians who accused her of being too obsessed with sex in her books. .

Perhaps that’s why “Judy Blume Forever” interviews some of her biggest fans from different racial and class backgrounds – including her now adult readers, including sex educators, actors such as Anna Konkle and YA author Jacqueline Woodson.

Blume keeps a copy of it
Blume holds a copy of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” as she reflects on her life and career in “Judy Blume Forever.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s an interesting thing to witness: a white female author writing almost entirely white characters, non-binary characters relatable to queer readers, Black, Asian American and many others across the identity spectrum. Part of that is because unlike today, queer authors and/or people of color were virtually absent from many schools’ reading lists.

It is likely that Blume, like many white authors still alive today, did not feel compelled to confront her own shortsightedness at the time. The faithful who grew up with his books, however, re-examine this in the film, although the author himself is not asked about it.

But even with the author’s lack of cultural awareness in her books, her fans still cling to her themes – from suicidal thoughts, love at first and bullying to self-esteem. Their respect for her work goes beyond whether it checks all the right cultural boxes as defined by today’s society.

Even today, the most developed teenage and pre-teen voices can still read a line from one of her books that gives them familiar comfort, as seen in several scenes in “Judy Blume Forever”.

Nikki Giovanni points out that Black women transcend even this world
Nikki Giovanni points out that Black women transcend even beyond this world in “Going to Mars: The Giovanni Project.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The question of this time also recurs throughout “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” from directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, another documentary that premiered at Sundance that traces the legacy of a legendary author. As the film’s title suggests, Giovanni, widely known for her poignant books and poetry, is a woman who sees herself beyond the limits of imagination.

So, of course, Giovanni talks in the documentary about himself, and black women in general, as other people in the world – a belief that was long before the phrase “Black girl magic.”

There is the feeling that when Giovanni, a mainstay in the Black Arts Movement, proclaims this about himself, it is not a declaration as it is with the ubiquitous phrase, but an indisputable truth.

That’s why when she talks about herself — whether it’s today at the age of 79 or back in 1979 when she joined hands with James Baldwin, a man just as clean 20 years her senior — it’s measured, reflective and far ahead of his time. .

The film gives an insight into the inner life of Giovanni, pictured here in 1972.
The film gives an insight into the inner life of Giovanni, pictured here in 1972.

Murray Feierberg/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

Perhaps as a result, much of “Going to Mars” slides effortlessly from the past to the present to the future which is somehow as clear as day in Giovanni’s eyes, telling his personal history and the history of the world in which she lives.

That includes the pain she endured for years from her son Thomas, who re-entered her life with his wife and teenage daughter, Kai, all of whom are eagerly featured in the documentary. There is also the story of Giovanni meeting his now wife, Virginia, and her own cancer diagnosis.

Flashing back to the conversation with Baldwin, the film reflects on Giovanni growing up in a home in Tennessee where her mother was physically abused by her father, making it clear that he was a man dehumanized by a system of white and that he was entitled to regain a sense of power through abuse. And what do you do with that, she mused aloud to the “If Beale Street Could Talk” author in their 1979 conversation.

Because Giovanni has always told us exactly who she is, it sometimes seems redundant to watch a documentary about her. “Going to Mars” gives us a third-party glimpse into the author’s inner life, revisiting her poetry collections several times, including “Black Judgment,” 1968, an unapologetic riff on the white lens of Black America.

Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at age 29, addresses Blackness, women, power and more in her writing.
Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at age 29, addresses Blackness, women, power and more in her writing.

Bettmann via Getty Images

The documentary rightly focuses on the poem “Nikki-Rosa” to emphasize Giovanni’s authority over his own story. His words, unexpectedly quoted by the film’s executive producer Taraji P. Henson in her narration throughout the film, are as powerful as ever:

“I hope no white person ever has a reason / Writing about me / Because they never understand / Black love is black wealth / and / they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood / and they don’t understand that / while I was quite happy.”

In the culture even now, we talk about the problems of negotiating our Blackness, our womenhood and giving our power to those who couldn’t care less. Giovanni wrote about these topics years before, in a world that was fighting the same battles we have today about equality, sexual freedom and misogyny inside and outside the community.

That’s why her other works, like 1983’s “Those Who Ride the Night Winds” and even her more personal writing like 2007’s “Acolytes” and 2020’s “Make It Rain,” feel like established material. Because, like Blume, Giovanni always had a knack for speaking directly to an audience in need. And readers still need to hear it.

As evident in this scene from
As evidenced in this scene from “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” the author and poet still resonates with audiences today.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Although it is a little depressing that these battles for basic human life are still in Germany today, it is nice to see how many people are involved in this struggle, that Giovanni remains at the forefront of the battle and attracts people from generations different.

Just as “Judy Blume Go Deo” emphasizes the author’s connection with new and old fans, “Go Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” goes to the author’s still full of readings where the audience laughs and laughs. with her screaming and reading. from one of his books. That kind of engagement is immortal.

Because everyone, no matter what age or how much time has passed, could use a reminder of who they are and where they need to go.

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