Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Saturday, May 11, 6:30 p.m.
Wellmont Theater, 5 Seymour St.
Q&A with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
The writer who showed up in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ studio in Manhattan to have a book jacket photo taken was African-American. It was 1981 — and he was perfectly aware that no black woman had a snowball’s chance at the time of getting a cab to stop for her, so after the shoot, Greenfield-Sanders walked Toni Morrison to the curb and flagged one down.
“I don’t think she ever forgot that,” Greenfield-Sanders said. His film “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is the official closing film of Montclair Film Festival on Saturday, May 11 (The festival actually continues on Sunday, May 12). It is a very personal film about the life and work of the Nobel prize-winning author, and the first film to make the 88-year-old author its focus.
It had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
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Morrison was the first black woman from any country to win the Nobel, which she received in 1993. Still, she has enjoyed that celebrity within certain self-defined limits, Greenfield-Sanders said. Even after she became legendary for her exquisite writing about the souls of black folks, even after her dazzling string of novels including “The Bluest Eye”(1970); “Sula” (1973); “Song of Solomon” (1977); and “Beloved” (1987), which was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey in 1987.
Yet Morrison never achieved Oprah-like fame, the director said. He and Morrison have been friends for 38 years, and it was that friendship that caused her to say yes to the documentary, he added.
The pre-eminent black writer and the accomplished white photographer/filmmaker have worked together on various projects, including “The Black List,” a series of films and photographs of black Americans Greenfield-Sanders created from 2008 through 2010. Morrison was the first film interview Greenfield-Sanders did for that project.
The director describes this new film as a meditation on the author’s life, and the themes she confronted throughout her literary career: race, American history and the human condition. The documentary includes a series of intimate interviews with Morrison conducted over five years, amplified by interviews with colleagues and peers such as best-selling mystery novelist Walter Mosley, author/essayist Fran Lebowitz, and social justice crusader Angela Davis.
Morrison is the only person in the documentary to look directly at the camera when she is being interviewed — a deliberate choice on the director’s part to engage the viewer to make the documentary feel like a personal conversation with her.
She tells us that she has been aware since childhood, growing up in an Ohio steel town, that, “words have power.” She recalls her grandfather, who had read the entire Bible. “It was illegal for black people to read,” she says, “so it was a revolutionary thing.”
The author also talks about her work with words, and her habit of getting up before sunrise to write for three or four hours. “I’m very, very smart early in the day,” she says.
In addition to talking about her work she talks about her personal history: her “loose” days at Howard University, her marriage and divorce, the way she left her kids with her mom to work as book editor in New York City because, as the folk song goes, “This train was bound for glory.” She quotes from The New York Times review of “Sula” which criticized the “narrowness” of her focus on black characters, and remarks sardonically. “They accused me of not writing about white people.”
The onetime Black Panther Angela Davis adds that Morrison helped smash “the notion that the white male must be omnipresent” in the literary point of view.