Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am offers an artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize-winner. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to 1970s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali, from the front lines with Angela Davis to her own riverfront writing room, Toni Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics, and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history, and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own literature. Inspired to write because no one took a “little black girl” seriously, 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 many of her 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.
In addition to Ms. Morrison, the film features interviews with many of her friends including Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez , and Oprah Winfrey. Using Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ elegant portrait-style interviews, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am includes original music by Kathryn Bostic, a specially created opening sequence by artist Mickalene Thomas, and evocative works by other contemporary African-American artists including Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson, and Kerry James Marshall. I was deeply moved by this film, which could not be coming out at a better time. I spoke to director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders who has known Toni Morrison for almost 40 years.
Danny Miller: I thought this was such a remarkable film, and I’m guessing I’m not the first person who ran from the theater the second it was over to go get one of the Toni Morrison’s books that I hadn’t read.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Oh, which one was it?
Song of Solomon, and I’m so loving it.
Oh, wow. You have such a great read in front of you!
Do you get a lot of this kind of reaction from people who have seen the film?
I do. It’s funny, I was at a screening in Florida recently and bumped into a woman before the screening and she asked me if Song of Solomon was covered in the film. I said yes, a little bit, and then she went on to quote the last 50 or so words from the book. She told me that when she first read that passage at three in the morning, her heart just fell apart. That book has a profound effect on people, as does so much of Toni’s work.
Her books kind of wash over you, and I find I experience them very differently now compared to when I read them when I was young. Toni Morrison is definitely someone that a lot of us put up on a pedestal, so it’s wonderful to see her in this film as a real human being. Still, when I inquired about covering this film, and they made it very clear up front that Toni Morrison herself was not available for interviews, my simultaneous reaction was “Oh, dammit!” and “Oh, thank God!” I so idolize her brilliance that I probably would have freaked out to be sitting across from her.
Ha! You’re not alone. I was talking to someone recently who told me they were in line to talk to Toni at a book signing and they had all these questions ready that they had thought about for a long time and wanted to ask her, but when they got up to the front, they couldn’t speak, they just handed her their book. (Laughs.) What I especially love about the film is that we do see the Toni that I have known for 38 years, this very real person who is so funny, and so quick and insightful. And at the same time, there’s a deep wisdom there and a tremendous amount of authenticity — she’s someone who has so much to say.
I would imagine she’s had endless requests from filmmakers over the years to do a film like this. Was there a courting process on your part to convince her to do it or was she on board right away?
Well, she didn’t say no when I first asked her which was a few years ago. Toni wrote the introduction and read it for me for the documentary I did called The Women’s List in 2015. It was around that time that I started bringing up the idea of doing this film. Her concerns were mostly about what time constraints it would have on her and if it would take too much time away from her own work. I said, well, here’s what I need from you and I’ll do everything else. I told her it had to be enjoyable to her and said how much fun I thought we could have doing it, and she said, “Okay, let’s go!”
Was it nerve-wracking to show her the film for the first time?
I showed it to her as soon as it was finished, and after it ended her only comment was, “I like her.”
Wow, you can’t ask for a better reaction than that! You know, I’d love a two-hour documentary on every single person you interviewed for the film, they were just phenomenal.
I agree with you. I mean, look at that group of people we assembled from Walter Mosley to Sarah Griffin and David Carrasco; from Sonia Sanchez to Angela Davis, it’s just a fantastic level of intelligence and remarkable careers, all of them. I felt very privileged that they did it.
I really love your photography and was wondering if you think that the ability you’ve honed over the years to create such intimacy with your portrait subjects is what allows you to get such great results with the interviews you do in your films.
Yes, I do think, as a portrait photographer I’m pretty good at making people feel comfortable. From the moment they walk in the door, I’m reading them and trying to understand what any nervousness they might have is about and how I can encourage them to trust me. I think that skill translates over to film when I’m doing the same thing with Paula Giddings or Russell Banks or Angela, whoever is coming in the door, trying to make them feel when they’re sitting there talking about Toni that they’re in a very safe space.
Does that go both ways? Do you ever have a photography subject you just don’t feel you can reach? (And yes, I’m partly talking about that session you did with Donald Trump years ago!)
(Laughs.) Oh boy. I’ll say it’s definitely not as much fun to shoot Republicans, It’s hard when you have such anger toward someone politically, I admit it. I’ve photographed both Bushes and I had a lot I wanted to say to them but I didn’t say any of it, it’s not my place to do that. I remember many years ago when I was photographing Orson Welles, I said to him, “What’s your favorite movie?” And he said to me, “I don’t play games like that.” I got it instantly. I’m there to take his portrait, not to act like a tourist. I should have said, “Would you like some coffee? Are you comfortable?” So I learned. But it can be difficult. Was it more fun photographing Teddy Kennedy than George Bush? Yes.
Although I have to say, I remember that photo you took of George and Laura Bush in the White House, I always loved that photo, I think you really captured something there.
To be honest, with all the insanity going on in this country right now, I always try to think of people like Toni Morrison to calm myself down. I try to remember that there are so many incredibly brilliant, positive people in this country doing great things who didn’t simply vanish into thin air because of who was elected to public office and how deteriorated many aspects of our culture have become.
I agree. I can’t think of a time when we need a film like this more, if I can say that.
No, it’s exactly what I was thinking. Of course, the part of the film that makes me furious is the reaction from the white male literary community when she wins the Nobel Prize. Just outrageous. Did any of those people ever live to publicly regret their words or even publicly disavow them?
Well, one of them is still alive, I won’t say his name because I don’t want to bring any attention to him, but I know he still feels that way. I mean, he’s just an ass. I don’t know about the other ones. That happened 25 years ago so it’s been a long time. But when I’ve watched the film with audiences, that part always gets audible gasps.
Have you been getting any reactions at screenings that surprised you?
I’m always very moved. At a screening I was just at, a young black woman got up to ask a question afterwards. She stood there for a minute and then she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t really speak now. I’m so moved by the film, I can’t even articulate my question,” and she sat down. As a filmmaker, it’s a wonderful feeling to know that the film is reaching people’s hearts as well as their minds.