Perspectives

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” on AMERICAN MASTERS; Tuesday, June 23 at 8 pm


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TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
A Film by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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 ‘70s-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.

Toni Morrison in TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
Toni Morrison in TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, a Magnolia Pictures release.

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 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.

In addition to Ms. Morrison, the film features interviews with Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Morrison’s novel “Beloved” into a feature film. 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.

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT
On February 9, 1981, Toni Morrison entered my small East Village photo studio for a Soho News cover shoot. She wore a dark suit with a white blouse and smoked a pipe. I had no photo assistants and hung all of the nine-foot-wide backdrops myself.

At this point in her career she was a full-time writer. “Tar Baby,” her fourth novel, was in print. Her days as an editor at Random House were nearly over, and she no longer needed to teach to support her two sons.

It was an instant friendship. She recognized she could trust me as a photographer, something I always hope for in a photo shoot. This trust continued over the years as I took more portraits for her books and their press. When Vanity Fair profiled her, she insisted that only I could shoot her. They put me on the masthead soon after.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison in TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, a Magnolia Pictures release.

I was thrilled for her when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

In 2006, at a portrait shoot in my studio for “Margaret Garner,” Toni’s new opera based on the “Beloved” story, we discussed all the remarkable black divas she had interviewed for the production. “We should do a book about them – I’ll write the text and you take the photos,” she said. That conversation sparked an idea to document discussions on identity by leading African Americans – musicians, politicians, writers and CEOs. Toni agreed to sit as our first subject. In 2008, my feature length documentary, The Black List: Volume 1, premiered at Sundance and aired on HBO. The project also included my portrait photography, a book and traveling exhibitions. Many volumes and iterations of “List” films followed.

In 2014, I suggested a documentary about her life. At this point, Toni Morrison was world famous but quite private. She was reluctant to talk about herself and hesitant about the hours required for filmed interviews. But she didn’t say no. I explained how important I thought it would be to hear from her friends and colleagues and to capture on film her history, accomplishments and the important themes of her many works. Hers was a monumental life that had impacted the world’s culture. A life that deserved an important documentary. It was also a film I really wanted to make.

Eventually, Toni agreed.

Conceptually, of the film’s 13 interviews only Toni would be filmed in my direct-to-camera style. Only she would look into the camera, directly addressing the viewer. Toni was open and intimate, thought-provoking and emotional. The result is powerful and historic. Our long friendship – nearly 38 years – comes through on camera.
– Timothy Greenfield-Sanders