TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2019)
Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., 212-727-8110
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves., 212-875-5050
Opens Friday, June 21
At the beginning of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, artist Mickalene Thomas’s hands are seen putting together a collage of different images of author Toni Morrison, like a jigsaw puzzle, one on top of the other, to the sounds of Kathryn Bostic’s score. It’s a beautiful start to a beautiful film that takes viewers deep inside Morrison’s life and career, from daughter and student to teacher, wife, mother, editor, and award-winning novelist. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order,” Morrison writes in Beloved. In the film, Greenfield-Sanders, Morrison’s longtime friend and primary photographer of nearly forty years, and editor and researcher Johanna Giebelhaus gather the pieces that help paint a portrait of the extraordinary person that is Toni Morrison.
They incorporate old interviews with Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, and Bill Moyers, personal photographs, archival footage, and new interviews with Morrison and thirteen of her colleagues — among them Columbia University professor Farah Griffin, activist Angela Davis, New Yorker critic Hilton Als, Random House editor Robert Gottlieb, composer Richard Danielpour, media magnate Oprah Winfrey, and fellow authors Paula Giddings, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Walter Mosley — who have nothing but laudatory things to say about her, as both a writer and a human being. The film also includes excerpts from several of Morrison’s books, read by Kim Cattrall, Joel Grey, S. Epatha Merkerson, Whoopi Goldberg, and others, in addition to works by such black artists as Kara Walker, Martin Puryear, Titus Kaphar, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, and Hank Willis Thomas that subtly complement her words.
The main focus, however, is on Morrison’s status as a black woman writer and her white audience. Early in her career, she was criticized for writing only about blacks and the black experience. “The assumption is the reader is a white person, and that troubled me. They were never talking to me,” Morrison says. “I didn’t want to speak for black people; I wanted to speak to, and to be among . . . us. So the first thing I had to do was to eliminate the white gaze.” One white gaze she has not eliminated is that of Greenfield-Sanders, who is Caucasian; in fact, Morrison is the one who inspired him to make such films as The Black List, The Latino List, The Women’s List, and The Trans List, which document people from diverse communities. (Morrison contributed an introduction to The Women’s List.)
Greenfield-Sanders focuses on such Morrison novels as Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved as well as the nonfiction compendium The Black Book. Cinematographer Graham Willoughby purposely shoots Morrison, who turned eighty-eight in February, straight on, with her looking directly into the camera, while the other subjects are photographed from the side, over the shoulder, adding further prestige and prominence to the grand dame, who is also shot on lovely mornings, working at her riverfront home.
Perhaps the best thing about this two-hour American Masters production is that after watching and listening to this remarkable woman talk about her approach to writing and the world at large, you’ll want to rush to reread her books, or pick them up for the first time. “Words have power,” she explains. Indeed they do. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens June 21 at Film Forum and Lincoln Center; Greenfield-Sanders will participate in Q&As following the 7:20 show on June 21, the 12:20 show on June 22 (with Brigid Hughes), and the 2:40 show on June 23 at Film Forum and after the 3:30 and 6:20 shows on June 22 and the 1:00 show on June 23 at Lincoln Center.