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

It is almost without fail that whenever you talk about a famous and older work of art, someone will feel the need to qualify it by saying, “It actually holds up pretty well.” As if to say that good art ends or somehow becomes inconsequential once it reaches a certain age, and it can’t stand as a popular culture document for its era as it supposedly can. It is reductive.

But that idea 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 author.

As directors Davina Bardot and Leah Wolchuk explore in the film, Bloom rose to fame with the landmark 1970 book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It is a coming-of-age story about a girl of about 12 who is fascinated by her changing body, her friends, her children, sex, faith, and her first menstruation.

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

Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. Her most famous work is published
Judy Blume visits a school in 1977. Her most famous work, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” was published in 1970.

Gene Tarbox/Denver Post via Getty Images

Even parents and other adults forbade it Book challenge and ban over the years since it was published. But the kids needed that close dialogue with the young man who got it—even though Margaret came from the mind of a young man of 32 at the time.

This duality is at the core of Judy Blume’s Forever, which pursues questions about youth, age, and what makes a work beloved by young and old alike such as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a book of its time and timeless, as someone suggests one in the movie.

Much of that was answered by intimate interviews with Bloom, now 84 years old. She reflects on being a young mother of two in a white New Jersey suburb, and increasingly struggling as a stay-at-home wife who begins to realize she has much more to offer than as a homemaker, which was expected of her and so many other women like her at the time.

Writing books became a means of liberation as a wife and as a younger self whose innermost thoughts were stifled in a society and home that discouraged them. It was also a way to connect more with her children, who were struggling with the same things she was doing at their age.

Judy Blume's writing has been beloved by fans—and sometimes controversial.
Judy Blume’s writing has been beloved by fans—and sometimes controversial.

Ed Meeker/Denver Post via Getty Images

And so came other books—including Fourth Grade Tales of Nothing, Fat Blood, and starring Sally J. Friedman as herself—that pushed for a reversal of censorship and the more common and acceptable portrayal of girls and women.

As Judy Blume Forever asserts, her books confronted cycles of female oppression and militant madness that remain as relevant as ever when Rowe fell against Wade And the list of banned books goes on discussion source.

Bloom fought for her voice, along with that of women and youth, through her books and in interviews, responding to angry questions posed to her by male journalists and politicians alike who accused her of being too obsessed with the sexuality of her books. .

Perhaps that’s why Judy Blume Forever features interviews with some of her biggest fans across different ethnic and class backgrounds—including adult readers, including sex gurus, and actors like Anna Kunkel and YA author Jacqueline Woodson.

Bloom holds a copy of
Bloom 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 writer who wrote almost exclusively for white characters, a duality that resonates with queer American readers, blacks, Asians, and many others across the identity spectrum. Part of that was because, unlike today, authors who were gay and/or people of color were almost absent from many schools’ reading lists.

Presumably, Bloom, like many white authors even today, did not feel compelled to deal with her myopia at the time. Devotees who have grown up with her books, however, revisit this in the movie, though the author himself curiously isn’t 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 thoughts, love first 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 voices of more advanced preteens and teens can still recite a line from one of her books that brings them familiar comfort, as shown in several scenes in “Judy Blume Forever.”

Nikki Giovanni asserts that black women are transcending the boundaries of this world
Nikki Giovanni affirms that black women are transcending the boundaries of this world in Going to Mars: The Giovanni Project.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

This question of immortality is also echoed throughout “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” by Michelle Stevenson and Joe Brewster, another documentary premiering at Sundance that traces the legacy of an established author. As the film’s title suggests, Giovanni, widely known for her poignant books and poetry, has always been a woman who sees herself beyond the bounds of imagination.

So, of course, Giovanni in the documentary talks about herself, and black women in general, as if in another world—a belief long since predating the phrase “black girl charm.”

There is a sense that when Giovanni, a staple of the Black Arts movement, declares it about herself, it is not an assertion as with the ubiquitous phrase, but an indisputable fact.

That’s why when she speaks for herself – whether she’s 79 today or in 1979 when I went toe-to-toe with James Baldwinan equally outspoken man twenty years her senior – he is measured, pensive, and far ahead of his 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 the past into the present into a future somewhat as clear as day in Giovanni’s eyes, telling both her personal history and the history of the world in which she lived.

That includes the pain she experienced after years of estrangement from her son, Thomas, who recently returned to her life with his wife and teenage daughter, Kay, all of whom appear fondly in the documentary. There is also the story of Giovanni meeting her now wife, Virginia, and moving on to her cancer diagnosis.

Returning to the conversation with Baldwin, the film reflects on Giovanni’s upbringing in a Tennessee home where her father physically abused her mother, explaining that he was a man dehumanized by a white system and felt entitled to regain a sense of power through abuse. And what to do with that, I 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, sometimes watching a documentary about her seems redundant. “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 insult to the white lens on black America.

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

Bettmann via Getty Images

The documentary rightly refers to the poem “Nikki Rosa” to emphasize Giovanni’s authority over its narrative. His words, cited by the film’s executive producer Taraji B.

“I really hope no white person will ever have a reason / To write about me / Because they never understand / Black love is black wealth / And they’ll talk / Maybe they’ll talk about my tough childhood / And they’ll never understand / All the time I was quiet happy.”

In culture even now, we talk about the problems of negotiating our blackness and femininity and giving our power to those who care less about it. Giovanni wrote about these topics years ago, in a world that was fighting the same battles we have today about equality, sexual freedom, and misogyny both inside and outside of society.

That’s why her other works, such as 1983’s “Those Who Ride the Night Wind” and even her more private writings such as 2007’s “The Helpers” and 2020’s “Make It Rain” feel like prescient stuff. Because, like Bloom, Giovanni has always had a gift for speaking directly to an audience in need. Readers still need to hear it.

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

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

While it’s a bit frustrating that these battles for basic human existence are still so relevant today, it’s good to see how many people are involved in this struggle, that Giovanni is still at the forefront of the fight and that she’s drawing in people from different generations.

Just as “Judy Blume Forever” highlights the author’s relationship with fans new and old, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” goes for still-packed author readings as the audience nods and laughs as she jokes and reads from one of her books. This kind of sharing is timeless.

Because everyone, no matter what age and how long ago they are, could use a reminder of who they are and where they want to go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *