How to Capture the Essence of Toni Morrison on Film

Toni Morrison_Timothy Greenfield-Sanders - Publicity - H 2019
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures

'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am' filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders talks about his history with the author, how this tribute to her took shape and the impact in leaves in the wake of her death.

Photographer and documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison were friends for 38 years. The trust that Morrison, who died in August, had with the director emanates throughout Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. As she opens up about her life, touching on motherhood, civil rights, book bans and more, Morrison looks straight at the viewer while sitting against a plain background. It's a similar style to Greenfield-Sanders' list series that Morrison helped inspire and encourage him to pursue, appearing in his initial film, The Black List.

Greenfield-Sanders, 67, spoke to THR about his history with the author, how this tribute to her took shape and the impact it leaves in the wake of her death.

How did you and Toni build such trust over the years?

I don't think Toni would have allowed me to do this if she didn't really, really believe I could and trust me to do it. I've known her for 38 years. We became friends as a photographer and subject, but that friendship eventually became much more, and she was an inspiration to me. Particularly the whole series of films I did on identity — The Black List, The Latino List, The Trans List. Toni inspired it originally with a lunch we had in my house: We were shooting for Margaret Garner, the opera that she had written, the libretto for it based on Beloved. Toni said, "We should do a book on black divas." That idea of a group of black African Americans and examining them and their lives and their accomplishments became The Black List. And Toni was the first to sit for it. And that direct-to-camera method that I used back in 2008, which then was unusual, today everyone uses it because it's so powerful and it works so well. But, yes, there was tremendous trust.

How did she become open to her life being explored through a documentary?

She had never allowed a biography. She didn't want to write an autobiography. I learned recently from Paula Giddings that they started to do it at one point and then Toni said, "I don't want to do this." So she never allowed it and never permitted it. And yet she allowed me to do a film about her life. I think she saw film as a way to reach a better, bigger audience, a different audience perhaps. And also knew that it would be her telling her story because she knew how I filmed.

Your photography, like The Black List, features portrait-style setups for interviews. How did that help tell Toni's story?

I had Toni direct to camera, and all the other people are looking off camera. So she's really talking to us, and the interviewees are talking about her. … We like to say in the editing room that Toni kind of gave us the crumbs that we followed. And sometimes I think they were entire loaves of bread. But we really kind of let her tell her story. It was something that I didn't know would work — to mix the two points of view. As a filmmaker, once you go down that road of shooting her direct to camera and the other people off camera, you're stuck with that look and you better hope it works in the editing.

Did you try shooting another way or go all in with the style we see in the documentary?

I knew it would be better. I wasn't sure about mixing the two and how that would work, but I think it really is like one plus one equals three. It really gives you more because it makes Toni the focus, makes her bigger than life. The others are just adding to the story, to her story. She's also one of the greatest storytellers out there — her look, her voice, her ability to kind of understand how the camera works. That's just so fortunate for a filmmaker.

There are so many voices in this documentary discussing Toni's legacy — Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis and more. How did they react when you asked them to be involved?

Everybody wanted to do it. Ultimately, I thought this is a very good balance of people. We ended up with a dozen people in the film, and that was plenty. They're so diverse and interesting and accomplished themselves. Right from Oprah to Hilton Als to Walter Mosley, Paula Giddings, Angela Davis. I mean, fabulous people.

The opening credits done by Mickalene Thomas are beautiful. Are those photos ones you took? How did that idea for the collage come about?

Thomas is a very renowned African American artist; I knew her work very well. I just called her out of the blue and explained that I was doing a project on Toni Morrison and she immediately said "I'm in." We gave her my portraits of Toni from over the years — she ended up using some that weren't mine — and just let her do her thing, do that collage, which is also, of course, playing off of the title of the film. It fell together so organically, "The Pieces I Am" and the pieces of Toni there.

With documentaries, B-roll and archival images are used for visuals. However, you featured a lot of art by Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Charles White, Aaron Douglas. Why this style?

You know, I had never seen fine art used that way in a documentary. I kept thinking if you could cut to a photograph, why couldn't you cut to a painting? Why couldn't a painting convey something as well? So we started to experiment with it a little bit and it started to work beautifully. The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence, what would be better than that — those paintings for the discussion of Toni's family leaving to go to Ohio? It obviously worked perfectly there, but I also wanted to acknowledge that Toni was an influence on all these other artists and that she means so much to them. I wanted to bring them into it as well. She's beyond just an artist and a writer, she's an artist with a capital A. I think she's appreciated by everyone and particularly by fine art artists like painters, people like Kerry James Marshall or Carol Walker or Lorna Simpson. They've read her, she means a lot to them. And this was a way to kind of include them.

Can you talk about the title of the film and what it means?

We were looking for a title, a subtitle, because we always wanted to call it Toni Morrison. My early thought was "words have power" because that was the line early in the film. I thought it was provocative and good. But as we were reading her books, looking for lines, and toward the end of Beloved, there's this section where that line comes from. It was so perfect. I mean, the minute I read the line, "the pieces I am," it just felt like this ideal metaphor for Toni because we were trying to say, "Here she's not just this Nobel writer. She's a mother of two. She's a prominent, incredibly important editor at Random House. She's influential on so many other artists and writers. She's all these things." In addition, she writes in a way that's sort of the pieces I am, she's never chronological. She moves in time and space and back and forth and the narrator changes. So it does feel like all these pieces that come together. I guess it fell into our laps that way.

As an artist yourself, what do you think of her work?

The Bluest Eye was the first book I read, and then when I got to know Toni, I started to read all of her other books. Every book is a gem. I don't have a favorite. She really was an important part of my life. Toni was sort of always part of what I did. I photographed her a lot. I think she made me understand so much about the importance of trying to show accomplishment and struggle within other communities.

What was Toni's reaction to seeing the film?

I was very lucky that I was able to show her the film. I sat with her and watched the whole film. She loved it. People ask me, "What did she say?" I said, "Well, Toni, what do you think?" And she said, "I liked her," with a little smile.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.