THE POSTER PROMOTING a new documentary about Toni Morrison gives an indication of what’s to come in the film. A collage portrait by artist Mickalene Thomas depicts the Nobel Prize-winning author against a vivid fuchsia background.

A live-action version of the portrait opens the film. The poster graphic comes together through a process of building up Morrison’s image. Beginning with an early photograph of the author at a young age, a handful of fragmented portraits of her through the years are placed one on top of the other, put together like large puzzle pieces. The hands of a black woman, presumably Thomas, add the layered elements one-by-one. A current photograph of Morrison is the final image and basis of the artistic collage, enhanced with color, patterns, and a flower over one of her eyes.

Additional works by Thomas and artists Rashid Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, and Charles White, among others, appear throughout the documentary, illustrating certain aspects of Morrison’s story.

 


The documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” opens in theaters June 21.

 

Paintings from Lawrence’s Migration Series, for example, are incorporated when Morrison, 88, talks about the migration of her own family from the South to Ohio in the early 20th century. Photographs from Gordon Parks‘s Segregation series and paintings by Titus Kaphar (“Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” 2014) and Kerry James Marshall (“Past Times,” 1997), are also featured.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is directed by Morrison’s friend, the photographer Timothy-Greenfield Sanders. The film offers a compelling portrait of the author, delving into her family background, formative years, critically acclaimed books, and groundbreaking career. While insights from her peers bring welcome perspective, the participation of Morrison herself in the film is its greatest asset. She’s candid, reflective, and incredibly funny. Part of the American Masters series on PBS, the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in select theaters today.

EARLY IN THE FILM, Morrison recounts an anecdote from childhood. Before they could read, she and her sister used rocks to write the few words they knew on the sidewalk in front of their house. One day the two little girls saw a four-letter word written further down the street that began with “fu.” They were determined to write the new word they discovered, but before they could finish forming the third letter “c” on the sidewalk, Morrison’s mother snatched them up and whisked them back into the house. She took the action without ever explaining to them what the word meant or why they weren’t to use it. It was then, Morrison said, that she realized “words have power.”

Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison grew up with three siblings. A voracious reader, she worked at the local library during high school and went on to earn an undergraduate degree in English from Howard University and a master’s degree from Cornell University. Over the course of her career, she has taught at several universities, retiring from Princeton, after 17 years, in 2006.

During her tenure as a fiction editor at Random House, Morrison wrote her first book, “The Bluest Eye” (1970). She penned the novel in long hand and asked women employed as typists at the publishing house to help her transcribe it. Paula Giddings, who later authored “When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America,” was in the typing pool then. In the film, she says Morrison offered her famous carrot cake as payment.

Morrison has been writing books for nearly 50 years now. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Moving, heart-breaking, and poetic, Morrison’s many critically acclaimed books have been banned and won accolades. The characters she’s created and the stories they tell shine a light on little explored aspects of women’s lives, African American culture, and the hard truths of American history.

 


Toni Morrison in “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a Magnolia Pictures release. | © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

 

MORRISON AND GREENFIELD-SANDERS met in 1981 when he photographed her for the cover of Soho News. They hit it off and he photographed her many times thereafter. Known for his portraits, Greenfield-Sanders had been photographing artists such as David Hammons, Elaine de Kooning, William de Kooning, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, and Rachel Whiteread for years.

The idea for a subsequent portrait series focused on prominent African Americans called the Black List, came from Morrison. Greenfield-Sanders recounted how the project developed in production notes for the documentary, which were made available to the press. He said:

“In 2006, at a portrait shoot in my studio for ‘Margaret Garner,’ Toni’s new opera based on the ‘Beloved’ story, we discussed all the remarkable black divas she had interviewed for the production. ‘We should do a book about them—I’ll write the text and you take the photos,’ she said. That conversation sparked an idea to document discussions on identity by leading African Americans—musicians, politicians, writers and CEOs. Toni agreed to sit as our first subject.”

After the Black List, which was made into a documentary for HBO and presented as an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Greenfield-Sanders went on to create portraits of important figures in a variety of other categories, including the Latino List, Women’s List, Boomer List, Out List, and Trans List. These projects were also developed as documentaries, airing on HBO or PBS.

Along with Morrison, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and artists Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, were among those selected for the Black List. Walker’s silhouettes and Simpson’s works inspired by images of women from Ebony and Jet magazines, are shown in the “The Pieces I Am.”

THE DOCUMENTARY features works by 21 artists. The list also includes Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Loïs Mailou Jones, Martin Puryear, and Stephen Towns. There is a body print by Hammons and Jack Whitten’s “Black Monolith, II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man.”

In addition to the artworks, the film presents archival footage, and interviews with Giddings, Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Farah Griffin, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, and Robert Gottlieb, a colleague at Random House who later edited nearly all of Morrison’s books. Each adds profound recollections and observations about Morrison and her books, characters, and approach to story structure. Oprah Winfrey, who made “Beloved” into a film in which she also co-starred, is among those included, too.

Morrison is also interviewed at length. Her presence is critical to the success of the film. She’s humorous, forthcoming, and matter-of-fact, recounting her own narrative with the same authority, authenticity, and compelling storytelling that define her books. During her segments, Greenfield-Sanders films the author centered and positioned square to the camera, mirroring the style and approach he used for his portrait series.

Toni Morrison funny, candid, insightful and matter-of-fact, recounting her own narrative with the same authority, authenticity, and compelling storytelling that define her books.

She talks about her family and growing up in Ohio, attending Howard, and about the difficulty after a failed marriage of raising two sons on her own while working full time. She shares her preference for writing in the morning, when she is “smart,” and says she writes for a black audience and therefore doesn’t over-explain cultural details.

In 1988, “Beloved” was nominated for, but didn’t win, National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards. Three decade-old footage shows Morrison being asked to respond to June Jordan and 41 other writers publishing a statement in the New York Times Book Review praising her work and admonishing the literary establishment for not, up to that point, bestowing her with the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize, recognitions they said she deserved. Morrison said she felt loved and honored by the gesture from her peers.

She won the Pulitzer and American Book Award for “Beloved,” and eventually, of course, Morrison wins the Nobel Prize. She regales viewers with a great story about how she learned, and verified, she won the prize and details her experience attending the ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Lebowitz, who was among those Morrison invited to go along, chimes in about the pageantry.

THE FILM DELIVERS a thoughtful and incredibly inspiring portrait of Morrison’s life and work. If she were a visual artist, the documentary could be described as a survey rather than a retrospective. In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott said, “If you want a thorough documentation of everything Morrison has done and everyone she knows, there’s always Wikipedia. But if you’d prefer an argument for her importance and a sense of her presence, then you won’t be disappointed.”

 


Toni Morrison in “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a Magnolia Pictures release. | © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

 

THE PRODUCTION NOTES also include a Q&A with Greenfield-Sanders. Among the inquiries, the director responds to questions about the decision to incorporate art by African American artists into the film, which he said “became such an important part” of the project:

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

TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: 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.

“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.” — Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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?

TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS: 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. CT

 

BOOKSHELF
Toni Morrison wrote “The Bluest Eye,” her first book, in 1970. Many many other books followed, chiefly novels, including “Sula” (1973), “Tar Baby” (1981), “Beloved” (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize, “Jazz” (1992), “A Mercy” (2008), and most recently “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,” which was published in February. The many portrait series produced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, including “The Black List” and others, have been published as books.

 


The trailer for “Toni Morrison” The Pieces I Am” features the Nobel Prize-winning author, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sanchez, among others. | Video by Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

 

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