Putting Together the Pieces of Toni Morrison

Filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders shows the author's many facets in his documentary "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am"

Photo by Zarateman

Toni Morrison knows how to tell a story. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she opened her lecture with a fable: Standing before the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, she outlined a tale about some disrespectful young people, a blind old woman, and a bird. She turned the story over like a prism, examining how the angle might differently refract its biases, its perspective, the very language that translated it from narrator to audience. “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created,” she said, describing the generative power of literature and its inverse: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”

So it’s fitting that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s new biographical documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, frames Morrison’s life in her own words. Toni is a brilliant, brilliant storyteller herself,” Greenfield-Sanders said recently. “I’m not talking about as a writer—I’m talking about as a speaker. She can weave a story so beautifully.” Morrison is a stately presence on screen—the film is anchored in a lengthy series interviews with the writer herself, now 88, conducted at her home in upstate New York by Sandra Guzman (Greenfield-Sanders estimated he had 20 hours of interview footage, shot over the course of several seasons). And the title, The Pieces I Am, is itself a fragment of a passage from Beloved: “She is a friend of my mine. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

The Pieces I Am takes a fragmentary approach to Morrison’s life and career, moving between the various spaces and identities she’s inhabited.

The Pieces I Am takes a fragmentary approach to Morrison’s life and career, moving between the various spaces and identities she’s inhabited: Chloe Wofford, the young woman who grew up in Lorain, Ohio, and eventually adopted her baptismal name, Anthony, professionally; the Random House editor who shepherded books by Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Gayl Jones, as well as the seminal anthology The Black Book, into the world; the professor who encouraged her students not to—as the adage goes—write what they know, but to take imaginative leaps; the single mother who raised two boys while writing novels before dawn; the eventual Nobel Prize winner. Along the way, guest appearances by friends, fans, and critics attest to her far-reaching influence—including Oprah Winfrey (who memorably called the fire department to acquire Morrison’s unlisted home number; Winfrey also produced and starred in the film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved) and Fran Lebowitz, who accompanied Morrison to the Nobel prize ceremony. 

A filmmaker and photographer by trade, Greenfield-Sanders first met Morrison during a portrait session for the Soho News in 1981; over the intervening 30 years, they’ve cultivated a friendship as he’s photographed her for her book jackets, press photos, and magazine features. (Among the other artists in Greenfield-Sanders’s portfolio are Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Beyoncé; his 1998 documentary, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, won a Grammy for best long-form music video.) The director’s respect for his subject radiates through the movie; The Pieces I Am delves into what has made Morrison such a legend while also sustaining the legend itself, braiding together its subject’s easy humor and warmth with the more obviously serious elements of her personal and family history. 

“Toni Morrison’s work shows us through pain all the myriad ways we can come to love,” Oprah says in The Pieces I Am. “That is what she does—with some words on a page.” I spoke with Greenfield-Sanders about how he distilled Morrison’s rich history into film. 

Katherine Cusumano: The title encapsulates the project of the film, which is taking these different elements of who Toni Morrison, the writer, the person, the literary icon, is, and reconciling them and exploring what makes them, them. Who were the different Toni Morrisons you wanted to explore in the film?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: People see Toni Morrison as the writer, and we really wanted to show Toni Morrison the single mother, Toni Morrison the teacher, the editor, Toni the great influence. We wanted to also show how much she meant to people by bringing in fine art from all these artists—it was all a way to bring that beauty of African-American art into the film, because they’re all influenced by Toni, I assure you. My mission was to bring art into it, to bring other voices into it—African-American voices, specifically. Mickalene Thomas’s magnificent opening montage [a collage of Greenfield-Sanders’s portraits of Morrison], which of course, plays again with the title, The Pieces I Am.

We wanted to show Toni Morrison the single mother, Toni Morrison the teacher, the editor, Toni the great influence.

KC: The secondary sources in the film seem to speak to that far-reaching influence—the urgency with which Oprah, for example, needed to get ahold of her, as well as her influence among visual artists and musicians. So what do you think sets Toni Morrison apart as an icon?

TG-S: Toni speaks to us in a way that very few people do. There’s something that’s very musical about her writing, that’s very emotional, that draws you in, that changes you, and I can’t think of another writer that does that for me. There’s a profoundness to her. She’s the Shakespeare of our time. 

KC: The film strikes a balance between the Toni Morrison who has a great sense of humor and bakes carrot cake and loves parties with the graver elements of her life and her work. How did you balance the fun and delightful parts without trivializing the larger picture? For example, how do you incorporate an anecdote about her secret carrot cake recipe into a segment that’s also discussing inequality in the workplace?

TG-S: With great difficulty. [Laughs] I think that’s what the magic of editing is—that we were able to. The film is very deep and profound and also has moments of real, great humor. Toni is a complex person. She’s not this monolith; she’s very much a human being herself, and people don’t see that. They see Toni Morrison, the iconic figure. I think Chloe [Wofford, Morrison’s birth name] comes through in the film in some way—that kind of person who’s not the famous person who everyone’s excited to meet and means so much to them.

KC: In that editing process, how did you remain cognizant of the parts of the film that would get you there, that would strike that balance?

TG-S: We structured the film so that it was not linear. It doesn’t start with her birth and end where she is today. It’s more these little sections—The Pieces I Am really is a metaphor for the way we edited it. So you have Toni, Random House years. You have Toni, the single mother. You have the Nobel; Lorain, [Ohio, where Morrison grew up]; her parents’ migration from Alabama. All of these sections were created as pods and then we tried to figure out how we could connect by going forward in time and back. My concern was that there was too much material. She lived such a rich life; how does one put that all in there? Toni could have 10 hours. We had to leave a lot of things out, but you make decisions as a director. 

KC: Right, you mentioned in another interview that the Peter Sellars interview was one that was pretty gutting to have to leave out. 

Toni is a complex person. She’s not this monolith.

TG-S: It was wonderful, yeah.

KC: Have you tried the carrot cake?

TG-S: I’m close to getting the recipe from her. [Laughs] It’s the best, absolutely. I want the recipe, though. My wife is a very good baker as well, so her carrot cake is pretty damn good. Toni thinks it is, too. 

KC: That’s probably pretty high praise.

TG-S: That’s very high praise. Her pride in that, that she was a very good baker—I love the way we carry it through in the film.

KC: Why do you think those moments where you see Toni’s humor and what she’s like as a person are especially striking or captivating?

TG-S: People have not seen the side of her that we show in the film. There’s an intimate quality in the way she talks here, direct-to-camera. The others talk off camera, so it sets her apart from everyone else. You want to come back to her over and over again, because she’s so wonderful. 

KC: The Pieces I Am also explores how her work has been siloed and compared to writers she doesn’t actually have that much in common with, like Ishmael Reed, just because they are both black and writing black characters and had the audacity to do so not necessarily taking a white audience into account. It must have been in the back of your mind that you are a white male filmmaker making a documentary on a black woman writer for whom centering black characters is paramount. How did you negotiate that?

TG-S: It was certainly on my mind at all times. I made a very strong effort to bring in other voices into our team, from Mickalene Thomas to Kathryn Bostic to Tommy Walker, who’s a producer with me for a dozen years, to all of the fine art that’s in the film from African-American artists. Ultimately, I think it’s about Toni’s trust in me: that Toni said, “You can do this, I’m agreeing to let you make this film about me.” I think that says so much and gave me so much—what’s the right word—it gave me the courage to do it. 

KC: When was it among all the portraits you took of Toni that you thought, this should be a film?

TG-S: I think around the time of The Black List [Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary film series about notable black Americans], which had come from an idea in 2005 from Toni, who had been working on an opera, Margaret Garner, to do a book on black divas. That idea turned into The Black List.

Once I got it funded and we started to do The Black List, Toni was the first to sit for it. Certainly, when that film was finished, I thought everyone in it was so extraordinary and deserving of a documentary, but if I had to pick one, it would be Toni first. [The Black List also features Reverend Al Sharpton, rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, and former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, among others.] I knew her the best; she was very part of my life in many ways; and her story is extraordinary. Aside from the Nobel, there’s all the other pieces to her life—her life as an editor, a teacher, a single mother, all the things we address in the film. It was rich for documentary.

KC: So you and Toni already had this established relationship both as friends and as photographer and subject before The Pieces I Am. How did those two dynamics translate into the film for you?

You’re seeing a very open and funny and real Toni Morrison that very few people get to see.

TG-S: It’s very helpful. She knew me well; she knew my crew; she knew my producer, Tommy Walker, from The Black List. She was at ease with the team I had, and there was a very strong trust there. My skill as a photographer is being able to read a person, being able to sense the nervousness in a photoshoot or a film interview. I’m good at making people feel comfortable. I think that’s what you see in the film: You see people very relaxed and willing to open up and talk. You’re seeing a very open and funny and real Toni Morrison that very few people get to see—the Toni Morrison that I know. I think she enjoyed the interviews; she had fun thinking about these issues and talking about her life; it was a really magical experience.

KC: How has that subject-photographer relationship changed over the 30-odd years you’ve been working together?

TG-S: Each photo session, you become closer to your subject. A few years ago, we were talking about the portraits and I said, “‘I’ve really got you here in this one. It’s really you.”’ And she said, “‘Yes, because I let you see me.”’ And I think that’s a great point—that’s the level you want to get to with a subject, where they’re open to you and allowing you to see them.

KC: Was there anything over the course of those interviews that surprised you or you hadn’t considered?

TG-S: When you know someone as a friend and you have a professional relationship as well, you haven’t researched the person; it’s your friend. When you start to research them for a film like this, you learn so much more. I was familiar with her work at Random House to some extent, but not to the extent that I was after research for the film. [In 1995], one of Toni’s writers, Toni Cade Bambara, died, so Toni Morrison took a year of her own life to finish Toni Cade Bambara’s book, These Bones Are Not My Child. It was an extraordinary thing. All of the parts of Toni that you kind of know in a peripheral way, you find much more depth as you get into the filmmaking process. If it were possible to have more admiration for Toni Morrison, I have it. 

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