Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni’s films prove that good art is timeless

Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni’s films prove that good art is timeless

Sundance 2023: Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni’s films prove that good art is timeless

It’s almost certain that whenever you talk about an ancient and renowned work of art, someone feels the need to qualify it by saying, “Actually, it holds up well.” As if to say that good art expires or somehow becomes inconsequential when it reaches a certain age, and can’t document the pop culture of its time as it should. It’s reductive.

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

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, Margaret. It’s a coming-of-age narrative about an almost 12-year-old girl fascinated by her changing body, her friends, boys, sex, faith and her first period.

It’s written in the first person and the titular character speaks candidly to his equally young and curious readers, asking the same seemingly rhetorical questions that are on their minds. It was one of the few books of its kind to confront the things kids couldn’t think about, let alone say out loud. So, of course, they got together for that.

Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. She published her most famous work, “Are You There God?  It's me, Daisy,
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 it, even challenging and banning the book over the years since its publication. But the kids needed that close dialogue with a young man who understood — even if Margaret came from the mind of a 32-year-old.

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

Much of that is answered through intimate interviews with Blume, now 84. She reflects on being a young mother of two in white suburban New Jersey, increasingly unhappy as a housewife who began to realize she had much more to give than being a housewife, which was what was expected. her. many other women like her at the time.

Writing books became a way to free herself as a wife and as her younger self, whose innermost thoughts were stifled in a society and home that did not encourage them. It was also a way to get even more involved with her own children, who were going through the same things as her at their age.

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

Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Then came other books – including “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, “Blubber” and “Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself” – that went against censorship and the more common and accepted portrayals of girls and women.

As “Judy Blume Forever” points out, her books tackled cycles of female repression and puritanical frenzy that remain as relevant as ever when Roe v. Wade fell, and the list of banned books remains a source of debate.

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

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

Blume holds a copy of
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 the Sundance Institute

It’s an interesting thing to witness: a white author who has written almost exclusively white, binary characters who resonate with queer, black, Asian American, and many others across the identity spectrum. Part of that is because, not unlike today, queer authors and/or people of color were almost absent from many schools’ reading lists.

Presumably Blume, like so many white authors even today, did not feel compelled to deal with her own myopia at the time. Devotees who grew up with her books, however, reexamine this in the film, although the author herself is curiously 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, first loves and bullying to self-esteem. Their admiration for her work goes beyond checking all the right cultural boxes defined by society today.

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 witnessed in several scenes in “Judy Blume Forever.”

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

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

This question of timelessness also reverberates in “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” from directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, another Sundance-premiere documentary 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 speaks in the documentary about herself, and black women in general, as supernatural – an ancient belief that long preceded the phrase “black magic”.

There is a sense that when Giovanni, a landmark in the Black Arts Movement, proclaims this about herself, it is not a statement as in the ubiquitous phrase, but rather an undeniable truth.

That’s why when she talks about herself — whether today at age 79 or in 1979, when she faced James Baldwin, an equally outspoken man 20 years her senior — it’s measured, contemplative and far ahead of its 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/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

Perhaps as a result, much of “Going to Mars” glides effortlessly from past to present to a future as clear as day in Giovanni’s eyes, telling both her personal story and that of the world she lived in.

This includes the pain of his years estrangement from his son Thomas, who has more recently re-entered his life with his wife and teenage daughter, Kai, all of whom feature fondly in the documentary. There’s also the story of Giovanni meeting his now wife, Virginia, and navigating his own cancer diagnosis.

Revisiting the conversation with Baldwin, the film reflects on Giovanni growing 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 felt entitled to regain a sense of power by means of abuse. And what do you do with it, she mused aloud to the author of “If Beale Street Could Talk” in their 1979 conversation.

Since 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 peek into the author’s inner life, often revisiting her many collections of poetry, including 1968’s “Black Judgment,” an unapologetic affront to white lenses in black America.

Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at the age of 29, addresses blackness, femininity, power and much more in her writing.
Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at the age of 29, addresses blackness, femininity, power and much more in her writing.

Bettmann via Getty Images

The documentary correctly points to the poem “Nikki-Rosa” to underscore Giovanni’s authority over his own narrative. His words, oddly quoted by the film’s executive producer, Taraji P. Henson, in her voiceover throughout the film, are more powerful than ever:

“I really hope no white people have a reason / To write about me / Because they never understood / Black love is black wealth / And they / will probably talk about my difficult childhood / and never understand it / While I was happy enough.”

In the culture so far, we’ve talked about the problems of negotiating our blackness, our womanhood, and giving our power away to those who don’t care. Giovanni wrote about these topics years before, in a world that was fighting the same battles we are fighting today for equality, sexual freedom, and misogyny, both within and outside the community.

That’s why his other works, like 1983’s “Those Who Ride the Night Winds” and even his more personal writing like 2007’s “Acolytes” and 2020’s “Make It Rain”, feel like such prescient material. Because, like Blume, Giovanni always had the gift of speaking directly to a needy audience. 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 sold-out audiences today.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

While it’s a little depressing that these battles for basic human existence are still relevant 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 appeals to people of all generations.

Just as “Judy Blume Forever” highlights the author’s connection with fans new and old, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” goes into the author’s still-full readings, where audiences nod and laugh along with her as she plays and reads from one of her books. That kind of engagement is immortal.

Because everyone, no matter how old they are and how much time has passed, can use a reminder of who they are and where they need to go.

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