Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni Films prove that good art is timeless

Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni Films prove that good art is timeless

It’s almost certain that whenever an older, renowned piece of art is discussed, someone will feel the need to qualify it by saying, “It actually holds up well.” As if to say that good art expires or somehow becomes inconsequential once it reaches a certain age, and can’t present itself as a pop culture document of its time as it’s supposed to. It is reductive.

But this thought came to mind while watching “Judy Blume Forever,” a new documentary premiering this year at the Sundance Film Festival that examines the life and social impact of the young 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? It’s me, Marguerite. It is a coming-of-age narrative about an almost 12-year-old girl fascinated by her changing body, her friends, children, sex, faith, and her first period.

It is written in the first person and the main character speaks candidly to his equally young and curious readers, asking the same burning and seemingly rhetorical questions that are on their minds. It was one of the few books of its kind that confronted the things kids weren’t allowed to think about, let alone say out loud. So of course they flocked.

Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. She published her most famous work, “Are You There, God?  It's me, Marguerite.
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 have banned, even challenged and banned the book over the years since its publication. But the children needed this close dialogue with a young person who understood it, even though Margaret came from the mind of a 32-year-old woman.

That dichotomy is at the center of “Judy Blume Forever,” which tackles questions of youth, age, and what makes a play as beloved by young and old as “Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret”, a book both timeless and timeless, as one person in the film suggests.

Much of that is answered through intimate interviews with Blume, who is now 84 years old. She reflects on being a young mother of two in suburban white New Jersey, increasingly miserable as a stay-at-home mom who began to realize she had so much more to give than being a stay-at-home mom, which is what it’s all about. expected of her and so many other women like her at that time.

Writing books became a way to free herself as a wife and as her younger self, whose innermost thoughts were suffocated in a society and home that did not encourage them. It was also a way to interact more with her own children, who were experiencing some of the same things that she experienced 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

Thus came other books, including “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Blubber” and “Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself,” which pushed against censorship and more common and accepted portrayals of girls and women.

As “Judy Blume Forever” underscores, her books grappled with cycles of female repression and puritanical frenzy that remain as relevant as ever when Roe v. Wade has fallen, and the list of banned books continues to be a source of debate.

Blume fought for her own voice, along with that of women and young adults, through her books and in interviews, in response to angry questions hurled at her by journalists and politicians who accused her of being too obsessed with sex in their books. .

Perhaps that’s why “Judy Blume Forever” features interviews with some of her biggest fans of various racial and class backgrounds, including her now-adult readership, including sex educators, actors like Anna Konkle, and YA author Jacqueline Woodson.

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

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

It’s an interesting thing to witness: a white author who wrote almost exclusively white binary characters that resonated with queer, black, Asian-American, and many other readers across the identity spectrum. Part of that is because, just like today, authors who were gay and/or people of color were all but absent from many schools’ reading lists.

Presumably Blume, like so many white authors still today, did not feel compelled to deal with her own myopia at the time. Devotees who grew up with her books, however, re-examine this in the film, though curiously the author 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 ideation, first love and bullying to self-esteem. Her admiration for her work goes beyond whether she checks all the right cultural boxes as defined by today’s society.

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

Nikki Giovanni stresses that black women transcend even beyond this world in
Nikki Giovanni stresses that black women transcend even beyond this world in “Going to Mars: The Giovanni Project.”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

This question of timelessness also resonates with directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” another documentary premiering at Sundance that traces the legacy of an acclaimed author. As the film’s title suggests, Giovanni, as well known for her books as she is for her moving poetry, has always been a woman who sees herself beyond the limits of imagination.

So, of course, Giovanni talks about herself, and black women in general, as otherworldly in the documentary, a long-held belief that long predated the phrase “black girl magic.”

There’s a sense that when Giovanni, a staple in the Black Arts Movement, proclaims this about herself, it’s not a statement as she is with the ubiquitous phrase, but an indisputable truth.

That’s why when she talks about herself, whether today at 79 or in 1979 when she came face to face with James Baldwin, an equally blunt man 20 years her senior, she’s measured, contemplative, and way ahead of her time. . .

The film offers a glimpse into the inner life of Giovanni, pictured here in 1972.
The film offers a glimpse into the inner life of Giovanni, pictured here in 1972.

Murray Feierberg/DMA/Penske Media via Getty Images

Perhaps as a result, much of “Going to Mars” slips effortlessly from past to present into a future that is crystal clear in Giovanni’s eyes, telling both his personal story and the world in which he has lived.

That includes the pain of his years-long estrangement from his son Thomas, who most recently re-entered his life with his wife and teenage daughter, Kai, who are fondly featured in the documentary. There’s also the story of Giovanni meeting his now-wife Virginia and navigating her own cancer diagnosis.

Picking up on the conversation with Baldwin, the film reflects on how Giovanni grew up in a Tennessee home where his father physically abused his mother, clearly stating that he was a man dehumanized by a white system and that he felt entitled to claim a sense of power from through abuse. And what do you do with it? the author of “If Beale Street Could Talk” mused aloud in their 1979 conversation.

Since Giovanni has always told us exactly who she is, it almost seems redundant at times to watch a documentary about her. “Going to Mars” gives us a third-party look into the author’s inner life, often revisiting her many collections of poetry, including 1968’s “Black Judgment,” an unapologetically affront to the white lens of black America. .

Giovanni, photographed in 1973 at age 29, addresses blackness, femininity, power and more in his writing.
Giovanni, photographed in 1973 at age 29, addresses blackness, femininity, power and more in his writing.

Bettmann via Getty Images

The documentary rightly points to the poem “Nikki-Rosa” to underline Giovanni’s authority over his own narrative. His words, mysteriously quoted by the film’s executive producer, Taraji P. Henson, in his narration throughout the film, are as powerful as ever:

“I really hope no white person has any reason / To write about me / Because they never understand / Black love is black wealth / And they’ll probably talk about my difficult childhood / And they’ll never understand that / The whole time I was pretty happy.”

In the culture, even now, we talk about the issues of negotiating our blackness, our femininity, and relinquishing our power to those who couldn’t care less. Giovanni wrote about these issues years earlier, in a world that was fighting the same battles we are in today over equality, sexual freedom, and misogyny both within and without the community.

That’s why his other works, like 1983’s “Those Who Ride the Night Winds” and even his more personal writings like 2007’s “Acolytes” and 2020’s “Make It Rain,” seem like such prescient material. Because, like Blume, Giovanni has always had the ability to speak directly to an audience in need. And readers still need to hear it.

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

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

While it’s a bit depressing that these battles for basic human existence are still going on today, it’s nice to see how many people are involved in this fight, that Giovanni remains at the forefront of the battle, and that it draws people from all generations.

Just as “Judy Blume Forever” highlights the author’s connection to fans new and old, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” focuses on the author’s still-filling readings, where audiences nod and laugh with her while joking and reading. from one of her books. That kind of commitment is immortal.

Because everyone, regardless of age and how much time has passed, could use a reminder of who they are and where they need to go.

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