Sundance 2023: The films of Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni prove that good art is timeless

Sundance 2023: The films of Judy Blume and Nikki Giovanni prove that good art is timeless

It’s almost invariably when you’re talking about a renowned, older work of art that someone feels the need to put it in perspective by saying, “It’s holding up really well.” As if to say good art decays or is somehow irrelevant when it reaches a certain age and cannot possibly stand as a pop culture document of its time as it should. It’s reductive.

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

As directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok explore in the film, Blume was inspired by the seminal 1970 book Are You There, God? It’s Margaret.” It’s a coming-of-age story about a nearly 12-year-old girl who is fascinated by her changing body, her friends, boys, sex, her faith and her first period.

Written from the first-person perspective, the title character speaks frankly to her equally young and inquisitive readers, asking the same burning, seemingly rhetorical questions that are running through their minds. It was one of the few books of its kind that dealt with things that children weren’t allowed to think, let alone say out loud. So of course they flocked there in droves.

Judy Blume attends school in 1977.  She published her most famous work Are You There God?  it's me margaret
Judy Blume attends school in 1977. She published her most famous work Are You There God? It’s me Margaret’, 1970.

Jane Tarbox/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Parents and other adults have banned it, and even challenged and banned the book in the years since its publication. But kids needed that close dialogue with a young person who understood – even though Margaret came from the mind of a then 32-year-old.

This dichotomy is at the heart of Judy Blume Forever, which explores issues of youth, old age, and what makes a work as popular with young and old as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’, a book that is simultaneously contemporary and timeless, as one character in the film suggests.

Much of this is answered through intimate interviews with Blume, who is now 84. She reflects on being a young mother of two in a white New Jersey suburb, increasingly unhappy as a homemaker who began to realize that she had much more to give than being a homemaker, what was expected of her and so many other women liked her back then.

Writing books became a way of breaking free as a wife and as her younger self, whose innermost thoughts were suppressed in a society and home that did not encourage them. It was also a way to continue to engage with her own children, who were experiencing some of the same things as she was when she was her age.

Judy Blume's writing has been loved by fans — and at times controversial.
Judy Blume’s writing has been loved by fans — and at times controversial.

Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

So 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 underscores, her books faced cycles of female oppression and Puritan frenzy that followed the fall of Roe v. Wade remain as relevant as ever and the list of banned books continues to be a source of debate.

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

Perhaps that’s why Judy Blume Forever includes interviews with some of her biggest fans of various races and classes — including her now-adult readers, including sex educators, actors like Anna Konkle, and YA writer Jacqueline Woodson.

Flower holds up a copy
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 wrote almost exclusively white, binary characters that resonated with queer, black, Asian-American readers, and many others across the identity spectrum. That’s partly because queer and/or people of color authors were almost non-existent on many schools’ reading lists, not unlike today.

Presumably Blume, like so many white authors today, did not feel compelled to struggle with her own short-sightedness. However, the followers who grew up with her books question this in the film, even if the author herself is strangely not asked about it.

But despite the author’s lack of cultural awareness in her books, her fans still hold on to her themes — from suicidal thoughts, first loves, and bullying to self-esteem. Her admiration for her work extends beyond whether she ticks 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 familiar comfort, as seen in several scenes in Judy Blume Forever.

Nikki Giovanni underscores that Black women transcend even this world
In Going to Mars: The Giovanni Project, Nikki Giovanni emphasizes that black women go even beyond this world.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

This question of timelessness also emerges in 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, known for her books as well as her poignant poetry, has always been a woman who sees herself beyond the bounds of imagination.

Of course, in the documentary, Giovanni talks about himself and black women in general as otherworldly — a long-held belief that far predated the phrase “black girl magic.”

There is a sense that when Giovanni, a fixture in the Black Arts movement, proclaims this about himself, it is not an endorsement, as is the case with the ubiquitous phrase, but rather an undeniable truth.

That’s why it’s measured, thoughtful, and way ahead of its time when she talks about herself — whether it’s now at the age of 79 or in 1979, when she got down to head-to-toe with James Baldwin, an equally outspoken man who is 20 years her senior foot apart .

The film offers a glimpse into the inner workings of Giovanni, pictured here in 1972.
The film offers a glimpse into the inner workings 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 the past to the present and into a future that’s somehow clear as day to Giovanni, telling both her personal story and that of the world in which she lives lived.

That includes the pain of her years of estrangement from her son Thomas, who recently rejoined her life with his wife and daughter Kai, who all star affectionately in the documentary. There’s also the story of Giovanni meeting her now-wife Virginia and coming to terms with her own cancer diagnosis.

The film picks up the conversation with Baldwin and reflects on Giovanni, who grew up in a home in Tennessee where her father physically abused her mother, and clearly explains that he was a man dehumanized by a white system and entitled to himself felt to regain a sense of power through abuse. And what do you do with it, she wondered out loud to the “If Beale Street Could Talk” author in her 1979 conversation.

Since Giovanni has always told us exactly who she is, watching a documentary about her sometimes seems almost redundant. Going to Mars gives us a glimpse into the author’s inner workings, drawing often on her many poetry collections, including 1968’s Black Judgment, an uncompromising insult to the white lens about black America.

Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at the age of 29, writes about blackness, femininity, power and more in her lyrics.
Giovanni, pictured in 1973 at the age of 29, writes about blackness, femininity, power and more in her lyrics.

Bettman via Getty Images

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

“I really hope that no white person ever has a reason/ to write about me/ because they never understand/ black love is black wealth/ and they will/ probably talk about my rough childhood/ and never understand/ while I was quiet happy.”

In culture, even now, we still talk about the problems of negotiating our blackness, our femininity, and surrendering our power to those who couldn’t care less. Giovanni wrote about these issues years ago, in a world that was fighting the same battles as it is today over equality, sexual freedom, and misogyny, both 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 lyrics like 2007’s “Acolytes” and 2020’s “Make It Rain” feel like such forward-thinking material. Because like Blume, Giovanni has always had a knack for speaking directly to audiences in need. And readers have yet to hear it.

As shown in this scene
As this scene from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project proves, the author-poet still has a crowd today.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

While it’s a little depressing that these struggles for basic human existence are still relevant today, it’s nice to see how many people are taking part in this struggle, that Giovanni remains at the forefront of the fight, and that they are people from all generations attracts.

Just as “Judy Blume Forever” highlights the author’s connection to fans new and old, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” is one of the author’s still jam-packed reads, with audiences nodding their heads and laughing with her while she jokes and reads from one of her books. This kind of commitment is immortal.

Because everyone, no matter their 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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