American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Interview

Air date: 06/23/2020



Initially Ms. Morrison was hesitant to agree to make the film, how did you get her on board?

I have known Toni since 1981. She was the inspiration for my 2008 film “The Black List” —really the entire series on identity that followed. That’s when I first started to seriously think about Toni as the subject for a film. It wasn’t until around 2014 that I felt there was urgency. We live our lives, get older, and often miss the right moment to capture an extraordinary life, with the subject fully engaged. And, there hadn’t been a proper documentary about her. Since Toni did not dismiss the idea immediately, which is often her way, I knew it was a good sign. I had asked her to write and record an introduction to my film The Women’s List, and when we went to record her in the summer of 2015, I brought the Executive Producer of “American Masters” at PBS Michael Kantor. Not to put too much pressure on her (laughs), but to let her understand that we were very inspired to do it. That really opened the door.

In the film Ms. Morrison is shot looking directly at the camera while everyone else is shot looking away from the camera. What inspired that choice?

As the director, I wanted Toni to stand out. Direct-to-camera is very much my photographic portrait style come to life in film…and the basis of the look of my long time “list film” series. It is so powerful and intimate. What’s unusual in this film is that only Toni is shot direct-to-camera. The other subjects are shot “over the shoulder style”. Toni talks to us. They talk about her. It was a somewhat risky visual decision because once you commit to this look, you’re stuck with it. You can’t reshoot the interviews. I think it worked wonderfully here.

People most often encounter Ms. Morrison through her writing, and it’s so wonderful to hear her voice. There’s this like honey-like quality to how she sounds, and she comes across as light-hearted in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect judging by the intense subject matter of her work.

It’s so interesting you point that out because aside from being able to write as brilliantly as she does, Toni’s presence is so extraordinary. I always wanted that to come through in the film, and I think what you see here is someone who’s relaxed with the film crew, relaxed with me. She’s very real. It’s the Toni that I know. She has a unique ability to tell stories. Toni Morrison is a great storyteller!

How did you decide on the 13 people interviewed about Ms. Morrison in the film?

The list of interviewees was compiled from conversations with Toni about who would be important to interview. It was more extensive than the people who made it into the film.

For example, we interviewed (Theater Director) Peter Sellars — who had worked with Toni at Princeton’s Atelier program — and we have a riveting 7-minute piece on Shakespeare that didn’t make it in because the film was getting too long. We hope to put it on the DVD.

Some might see irony in the fact that a white male director is making the first major documentary about a black woman writer whose work is so much about getting out from under the weight of the white gaze. How would you respond to that critique? 

Toni’s trust in me, both as a filmmaker and a friend, is what gave me permission to make this film. From the beginning, I was very conscious of my own white male gaze…and the importance of questioning and challenging it with strong collaborators who brought unique perspectives to the project. I took a similar approach for my film series on identity – The Black List, The Latino List, The Trans List, etc. In this film, as much as possible, it’s Toni Morrison telling her story, her narrative, her life.

Directors often work with various collaborators, and you certainly did that with this film. Why was this important for you?

The only way I could make a film about an artist as profound as Toni Morrison was to bring in other voices with their own ideas and inspirations. I’m a very open person as a director. I’m very eager to hear what other people think, so I purposely sought a diverse team. My editor and producer, Johanna Giebelhaus, also worked on The Trans List with me. She brought passion, insight and invaluable research to this film. As we started to consider music, we discovered (African-American composer) Kathryn Bostic. She is an extraordinary musician and composer based in Los Angeles. I phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m doing a film on Toni Morrison’ and before I could even finish, she said ‘I’m getting goose bumps. Whatever you want, I’m there.’ Interviewer Sandra Guzmán has worked with me on several of the “List” films. Sandra is an Afro-Latino woman, a long-time devoted Morrison reader, and she even drives a car with the license plate ‘Sula’ on it! My two long-time producers Tommy Walker (African-American) and Chad Thompson have worked with me on my other docs and were both vital to this project. It was important to me that Toni feel comfortable and at ease with the team working on this film. And I’m confident she did.

The opening of the film features a collage of images of Ms. Morrison made by the artist Mickalene Thomas. How did that come about?

I had toyed with the idea of using my portraits of Toni in the opening, since I have photographed her so many times over the years. But, as we were adding more and more African-American artists’ work to the film we thought the collage work by Mickalene Thomas could be interesting, if animated. I had done an animated collage opening in a previous film and liked the look and feel of it. I reached out to Mickalene, whom I didn’t know, and she instantly said ‘I’m in.’ Toni is iconic to so many people. I think she is the greatest artist of our time. Everyone who is conscious has read her and is influenced by her.

In addition to Thomas, the film draws heavily on artwork from several black artists including Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker. Why is that?

My friend (Conceptual Artist and Director) Rashid Johnson came over for me to photograph his portrait, and I asked him to look at an early five-minute cut of the film. I had used an image by an African-American artist already and Rashid suggested considering the painter Charles White too. He started to throw out other names of artists. We were delighted that he thought the technique was working. It was really a big inspiration to us. We wanted the African American art in the film to feel organic and it became such an important part of the film. Artwork is rarely used this way in documentaries. How could one better visualize the ‘Great Migration’ than with the paintings of Jacob Lawrence?. Lawrence’s art was the perfect way to picture Toni’s discussion of her family leaving the South for Ohio. It was just magical.

How did you land on the title of the film?

We were struggling with a subtitle until we saw this line from “Beloved”: “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.” I thought it was a perfect synthesis of Toni’s work. Her work is non-linear in a sense, but very structured at the same time. The subtitle also relates to Mickalene’s animated collage opening credits sequence…the fragments of Toni coming together. So it was a wonderful metaphor for Toni’s work.

Ms. Morrison’s fan base is largely people who love books. Why do you think that those people would go see this film?

When you read Toni you want to know more about her. There’s certainly a Toni Morrison cult out there, but beyond that there’s an audience who will see this film from word-of-mouth and then go read her books. You can’t leave the cinema without thinking ‘I want to read “The Bluest Eye” ’ or ‘I’m going to go read “Sula” or “Song of Solomon” or “Beloved.” ’ There’s a lot to read!

Do you have a sense of how the film has been received so far?

I showed Toni the completed film and she said ‘I like her.’ (laughs) At film festivals, audiences have come away feeling a connection to Toni and tremendous admiration for her and her life. What more could I ask for?