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‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ director reveals how he captured the novelist’s intimate moments

Toni Morrison
Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, the subject of the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”
(Magnolia Pictures)

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ new documentary tells the story of a pioneering book editor, the first female African American senior editor at Random House, who brought to print such distinctive voices as Angela Davis, Gayle Jones and Muhammad Ali, as well as popular and influential collections like “The Myth of Lesbianism,” “Contemporary African Literature” and the bestselling “The Black Book.”

But Greenfield-Sanders’ film only spends a fraction of its time on these accomplishments, because that book editor happened to be Toni Morrison, who is also widely hailed as one of America’s greatest and most influential writers for her 11 novels, which include “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved.” Morrison has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Nobel Prize in literature and been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom while also being selected four times for Oprah’s Book Club, more than any other author.

Despite this public profile, Morrison is a private person who never wrote a memoir and turned away biographers, Greenfield-Sanders says. A photographer and documentary filmmaker, he persuaded her to tell her story in his film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

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The film recounts Morrison’s family history — how her grandparents fled the South and her childhood in Lorain, Ohio — and her personal life. She chose Howard University so she could be away from home and enjoy dating more easily but she also experienced Southern segregation for the first time. Morrison also boasts of making the world’s greatest carrot cake, which is later confirmed by historian Paula Giddings, who helped type chapters of an early Morrison novel and was rewarded with a cake.

The movie also discusses the influence she wielded as an editor and the profound impact of her novels on American literature and life. And it recounts famous moments like the 1988 protest letter written by four dozen black writers and critics — including Maya Angelou and John Edgar Wideman — because Morrison had not won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize. (She won the Pulitzer months later.)

Greenfield-Sanders met Morrison in 1981 when he photographed her for the SoHo News. “I remember how confident she was,” he says of his first impression.

They became friends and eventually he became, he says, “her go-to photographer” for author photos for her books and portraits for magazine profiles. They became friends and in 2005, after she had written the libretto for an opera about Margaret Garner (the woman whose tragic story inspired “Beloved”), Morrison suggested collaborating about a book on black divas. Greenfield-Sanders is not an opera fan so the idea morphed into “The Black List,” a documentary about some of America’s most prominent African Americans.

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“I started thinking afterward that everyone in this film deserves a feature doc but the first one I would do would be Toni Morrison,” he says. “It wasn’t until five years ago that I really started to think, ‘It’s now or never.’ She was 83 then. I asked her if she would consider it and she didn’t say no, which was a great sign.”

Morrison eventually sat for two lengthy interviews, discussing everything from raising two sons as a single working mother to the time of day she prefers to write.

The Times recently caught up with Greenfield-Sanders to chat about his film and friendship with Morrison.

Was it easy to get her to let her guard down?

The Toni in the film is very much the Toni I know. She’s terribly funny and incredibly insightful. She’s an incredible storyteller. Every word is chosen carefully, even the facial expressions are wonderful.

Were there any surprises in the stories?

They were in the details. When she talked about her family leaving the South and how her mother told her that was the first time she’d had white bread and Toni adds, “Which is the worst thing ever.” Or when I asked how she got to her first job in publishing up in Syracuse and she told about borrowing her father’s car and going with her sister but then she told this marvelous story about her father’s previous car, which had no brakes. Those kind of details were so delicious.

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You also get to see this warm side of Toni. The carrot cake is a wonderful thread in the film, especially when she tells Paula, “I’ll come to your house and make you the best carrot cake you’ve ever had.” Apparently it is.

Have you ever had her carrot cake?

I have not had it. I was with her a couple of weeks ago and was trying to get the recipe out of her. We thought we could put it on bookmarks. We’re not getting it. My wife made a carrot cake that I’m going to take to her. She’s gotta make me one.

The big surprise for me was her impact as an editor, especially since she was doing that work while writing some of her most famous novels and raising two young sons.

It’s mind-boggling. We screened this at festivals and nobody knows she was an editor and all the people she brought to the table. It was a big deal back then. And very few people know about her involvement in “The Black Book,” which is in its 35th printing -- she instigated it and put it together and it was a huge thing. This side of her is underestimated.

You interviewed a heavyweight roster of novelists, poets, critics and even Oprah Winfrey. Was it easy to find the right mix?

I tried to keep the focus on Toni — if you saw the raw interviews, it could have just been all Toni. But it was helpful to have these other people. I love the way I have Toni looking at camera and everyone else looking off camera, which I’d never seen in a doc — Toni is telling her story to us and the others are talking about her.

How did you choose which other voices to include?

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I did consult with Toni. I had a big list. And she had a big pencil.

I tried to balance the list, from Angela Davis to Fran Lebowitz, from Russell Banks to Walter Mosley.

Toni was Angela’s editor and convinced her to do the book and they are very close friends to this day. One thing I had to edit out was that Angela actually moved in with Toni and lived in her house for a while as she was writing her book.

Fran Lebowitz is a very close friend but is also comic relief.

Russell Banks and Toni have been friends for many years and he’s a political writer himself and brings a white male perspective to this. Walter Mosley is a contrarian: in the section about the protest letter, he was against signing it, saying, “Who cares what white people think of my writing.” But I think both look at Toni as a model.

You also got Oprah Winfrey to sit for an interview. Was asking her to talk about Toni Morrison the easiest way to get a yes from her?

You are 100% right. The timing was not easy but when we reached out Oprah immediately said, “I want to do this, I just have to figure out when.”

It took a year but Oprah gave us gold. She’s a huge fan and is moved by Toni’s work and made the movie of “Beloved.” Her book club was vital to Toni’s career — the sales from that were mind-blowing.

We didn’t want to use too much Oprah, we wanted to balance her with everyone else but she gave us a lot of great stuff.

Did you have to cut anyone out?

I don’t like taking people’s time and then cutting them but we only have two hours and this could be 10 hours long. There were so many things on the cutting room floor that I wish were in there. One was a seven-minute piece with the only person I interviewed who’s not in the film, Peter Sellars, the theater director. Toni and he talk about Shakespeare and it’s a riveting, fascinating piece. She talks about her play “Desdemona,” that and her interpretation of “Othello.” It’s incredible but how important is her one play versus one of her books. So we ended up pulling that.

While you were editing did you show Toni segments or discuss it with her?

I don’t like showing it to the subject. The only time I did that was with my Lou Reed film — we were struggling because we didn’t have enough music from him so I showed Lou a 20-minute cut. That was a risk I took. He could have said, “I hate this part” and “change that.”

He didn’t say a word, just, “I’ll talk to you later” and he went home. But he called me later and said, “You can have any of my songs that you want.” We got lucky.

What was Toni’s reaction when she finally saw it?

She watched the film and she turned to me with a little smile and said, “I like her.”


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