Sundance 2023: Judy Blume And Nikki Giovanni Films Prove Good Art Is Timeless
It’s almost without fail that whenever you talk about a renowned, older work of art, someone will feel the need to qualify it by saying, “It actually holds up well.” As if to say good art expires or somehow becomes inconsequential once it reaches a certain age, and can’t possibly stand as a pop culture document of its era as it’s supposed to. It’s reductive.
But this thought came to mind while watching “Judy Blume Forever,” a new documentary premiering 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? 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 getting her first period.
It’s written in first-person and the titular character speaks candidly to her equally 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 to confront the things that kids weren’t allowed to think, much less say out loud. So, of course, they flocked to it.
Parents and other adults forbade it, even challenging and banning the book over the years since its publication. But kids needed this close dialogue with a young person who got it — even though Margaret came from the mind of a then-32-year-old.
That dichotomy is at the core of “Judy Blume Forever,” which pursues questions of youth, age and what makes a work as beloved by those both young and old as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a book simultaneously of its time and timeless, as one person suggests in the film.
A lot of that is answered through intimate interviews with Blume, now 84 years old. She reflects on being a young mother of two in white suburban New Jersey, increasingly miserable as a stay-at-home wife who began to realize she had a lot more to give than being a homemaker, which is what was expected of her and so 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 a home that didn’t encourage them. It was also a way to further engage with her own kids, who were experiencing some of the same things she did at their age.
So came 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 the more common and accepted portrayals of girls and women.
As “Judy Blume Forever” underscores, her books confronted cycles of female repression and puritanical frenzy that remain as relevant as ever when Roe v. Wade has fallen and the banned books list 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 the angry questions hurled at her by male journalists and politicians alike 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 various racial and class backgrounds — including her now-grown-up readers, including sex educators, actors like Anna Konkle and YA author Jacqueline Woodson.
It’s an interesting thing to witness: a white female author who wrote almost exclusively white, binary characters resonating with queer, Black, Asian American readers and many others across the identity spectrum. Part of that is because not unlike today, authors who were queer and/or people of color were nearly absent from many schools’ reading lists.
Presumably, Blume, like so many white authors still today, didn’t feel compelled to contend with her own shortsightedness at the time. The devotees who grew up with her books, however, do reexamine this in the film, even though 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 their themes — from suicidal ideations, first loves and bullying to self-esteem. Their admiration for her work goes beyond whether it checks all the right cultural boxes as defined by society today.
Even today, the most progressive teen and pre-teen voices can still read a line from one of her books that brings them a familiar comfort, as witnessed in several scenes in “Judy Blume Forever.”
This question of timelessness also reverberates throughout “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” from directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, another documentary premiering at Sundance that traces the legacy of an acclaimed author. As the film’s title suggests, Giovanni, as widely known for her books as her poignant poetry, has always been a woman who sees herself beyond the limits of imagination.
So, of course, Giovanni talks in the documentary about herself, and Black women in general, as otherworldly — a long-held belief that far preceded the phrase “Black girl magic.”
There’s a feeling that when Giovanni, a staple in the Black Arts Movement, proclaims this about herself, it’s not an affirmation as it is with the ubiquitous phrase, but rather an incontestable truth.
That’s why when she speaks about herself — whether it’s today at 79 years old or back in 1979 when she went toe-to-toe with James Baldwinan equally forthright man 20 years her senior — it’s measured, contemplative and far ahead of its time.
Perhaps as a result, much of “Going to Mars” glides effortlessly from past to present to a future somehow clear as day in Giovanni’s eyes, telling both her personal history and that of the world in which she’s lived.
That includes the pain of her yearslong estrangement from her son Thomas, who more recently reentered her life with his wife and teenage daughter, Kai, all of whom fondly appear in the documentary. There’s also the story of Giovanni meeting her now-wife, Virginia, and navigating her own cancer diagnosis.
Revisiting the conversation with Baldwin, the film reflects on Giovanni growing up in a Tennessee home where her father physically abused her mother, stating plainly that he was a man dehumanized by a white system and felt entitled to reclaim a sense of power through abuse. And what do you do with that, she pondered aloud to the “If Beale Street Could Talk” author in their 1979 conversation.
Because 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 peek into the author’s inner life, often revisiting her many collections of poetry, including 1968’s “Black Judgment,” an unapologetic affront to the white lens on Black America.
The documentary rightfully points to the poem “Nikki-Rosa” to underline Giovanni’s authority over her own narrative. Its words, uncannily cited by the film’s executive producer Taraji P. Henson in her narration throughout the film, are as empowered as ever:
“I really hope no white person ever has cause/ To write about me/ Because they never understand/ Black love is Black wealth/ and they’ll/ probably talk about my hard childhood/ and never understand that/ all the while I was quite happy.”
In the culture even now, we talk about the problems with negotiating our Blackness, our womanhood and giving our power away to those who couldn’t care less about it. Giovanni wrote about these topics years prior, in a world that was fighting the same battles we are today over equality, sexual freedom and misogyny both inside and out of 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 such prescient material. Because, like Blume, Giovanni has always had a knack for speaking directly to an audience in need. And readers still need to hear it.
While it’s a little depressing that these battles for basic human existence are still germane today, it’s nice to see how many people are engaged with this struggle, that Giovanni remains at the forefront of the battle and that she attracts people from across generations.
Just as “Judy Blume Forever” highlights the author’s connection with new and old fans, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” goes to the author’s still-packed readings where audiences nod their heads and laugh along with her as she quips and reads from one of her books. That type of engagement is immortal.
Because everyone, no matter what 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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