The intimate examination into the powerful themes that people have confronted throughout their lives can make for a powerfully gripping and motivational story. That stunning exploration into the award-winning literary career and personal achievements of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor and professor, Toni Morrison, is highlighted in the new documentary, ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.’ The literary icon’s longtime friend and professional collaborator, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, directed and produced the film, which Magnolia Pictures is set to release in theaters in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow, June 21.
‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ offers an artful and intimate meditation on the life and work of the legendary title storyteller. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio to her 1970s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali and riverfront writing room, Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition through the prism of her own literature.
Inspired to write because no one took her seriously when she was a child, Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. Woven together with a rich collection of art, history, literature and personality, the film includes discussions about her many critically acclaimed works, including novels ‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘Sula’ and ‘Song of Solomon,’ her role as an editor of iconic African-American literature and her time teaching at Princeton University.
Greenfield-Sanders generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he wanted to make the documentary because the literary icon has been an inspiration in his life since they met on the set of their first photo shoot in the early 1980s. He also noted that he choose archival clips and footage, and shot new interviews, to include in the film that would best tell Morrison’s story.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new documentary, ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.’ Why were you inspired to make a film about her life and career? How would you describe your helming style on the film?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (TGS): I first met Toni 38 years ago, in 1981. She posed for me for a portrait for the Soho News, as I was a young photographer at the time. We became friends in that moment, and I went on to become a favorite photographer of hers. I went on to shoot her book jackets, and images like that.
Toni was an inspiration in my life, and our friendship became important to me. There was a whole series I did on identity, which was called ‘The List Series,’ and was inspired by Toni. The first series was called ‘The Black List,’ and it has several films about African Americans, Latinos, gay and transgender people and women. There are nine films that I made in that series. Toni really inspired that whole series, because we were talking about making a film about black divas, as she was doing work in the opera world (2006’s ‘Margaret Garner,’ which is based on the ‘Beloved’ story). That idea morphed into ‘The Black List’ film.
SY: How did you strike a balance between portraying Morrison’s family life, her publishing career and her writing career?
TGS: I wanted to show that Toni is more than just a Nobel Prize-winning author. She’s also a single mother of two, and had a big career at Random House as an editor, and was also a teacher for many years. People may know her for (her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel,) ‘Beloved,’ or for her Nobel Prize, but they don’t know this other side of her. So that was a goal for me when making the film.
SY: In addition to Toni, the documentary also features interviews with her friends, family and colleagues, including Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Farah Griffin and Oprah Winfrey. What was the process of deciding who you would interview for the film, and how you would present the interviews in the movie?
TGS: I wanted to keep the other interviewees to a very strict list of people who I felt would be very important to the film. I didn’t want to invite people in for interviews, and then not include them in the film, because I don’t think that’s fair to them. So I picked people who I felt could amplify the story of her life.
It was important to me that Toni was looking at the camera, and the other interviewees were looking off camera. That was a decision I made for the visual presentation of the film. So she was telling her story to the camera, and everyone else was talking about her.
SY: Graham Willoughby served as the cinematographer on the film. What was the process of working with him to decide how you shoot the movie?
TGS: The visual look of the film is my look. Graham Willoughby, who has worked as my cinematographer for many years, essentially took my portrait look, and moved it to film. We used a single light source, a clean backdrop and a direct-to-camera gaze with Toni. So it’s like a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders portrait come to life. The movie reflects how my work has developed over the years, including how I light people; it’s about the person, and not so much fancy lighting.
SY: There are more than 600 archival images and video clips in ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.’ How did you also decide how which material to include in the documentary that also reflect her personal and professional journeys?
TGS: The decision of what material to use really came out of the editing process. Johanna Giebelhaus, who edited the film, also did the research. She did an amazing job finding great material that’s out there. She traveled to (Morrison’s birthplace of) Lorain, Ohio, and spoke to the historical society there. She got images from them that have never been seen before. Princeton (where Morrison taught from 1989 until her retirement in 2006) also opened up its archives to us. That was profoundly important to the film.
It was a challenge to choose from all the video clips, since there’s so much material; we could have made the film 10 hours long. But we tried to put clips in the film what we thought would tell Toni’s story in the best way.
SY: Speaking about the extra footage, do you have plans to release it in any capacity following the feature’s official theatrical release?
TGS: We’re going to put some of the extra footage on the DVD, as well as online. There’s a wonderful piece about Shakespeare, as well as a fascinating story about one of Toni’s friend, Toni Cade Bambara. (Morrison) stopped what she was doing to finish the book, ‘Those Bones are Not My Child,’ after (Bambara) died, because she thought it was important to share it with the world.
SY: In addition to directing the documentary, you also served as one of the producers. Why did you decide to also produce the movie, and how did you balance your helming and producing duties?
TGS: Well, I’m used to doing everything! (laughs) I’m a producer, as well, because I raised the funding for the film.
SY: ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ had its World Premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What was the experience of premiering the movie at the festival?
TGS: Sundance is the most important festival in America, and I’ve been there four times. It means a lot to me, as well as to all filmmakers, to get in. It makes your film stand out, so I had a goal to get this film into Sundance. It was wonderful to show it there, and receive the reaction we got. We hadn’t really shown it to anyone before the premiere, so it was a very exciting moment.