Words have power. It was one of the first lessons that Toni Morrison learned growing up in Lorain, Ohio.
The story of this Nobel Laureate makes it to the silver screen on July 3 in the documentary: “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” Miami Beach native Timothy Greenfield-Sanders directed the film detailing Morrison’s journey from teen librarian to literature professor to Random House editor to best-selling author and first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize.
Her interview and narrated words are interspersed with conversations from such luminaries as Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and Oprah Winfrey.
“Oprah definitely wanted to be part of the film,” said Greenfield-Sanders. “She was certainly important to us because of her book club, her film “Beloved” and her true love for and understanding of Toni Morrison ... she is marvelous, funny and so smart.”
Using portrait-style interviews, Greenfield-Sanders was able to underscore the contributions made by a writer whose work is so rife with pain and truth that it has been both celebrated in literary circles and banned in American classrooms— including her home state, Ohio.
Novels such as “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” feature stories of rape, incest and murder. Yet, more important to Morrison, they tell the story of Black women while “eliminating the white gaze.”
Greenfield-Sanders, who graduated from Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, first met Morrison in 1981 and served as photographer for her books and press shots. She inspired his film series on identity and he decided to ask her if she’d ever consider doing a film on her life.
“This was a few years ago and she didn’t say ‘no.’ I took that as a ‘yes’ and here we are today,” he said.
He enlisted a diverse team of filmmaking collaborators like Kathryn Bostic who scored original music for the film and artist Mickalene Thomas who created a collage-based opening sequence.
Overall, as heard in the film voiceover, the documentary works to debunk the reviewer’s words —“Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a fabulous recorder of the Black side of provincial American life.”
It is Greenfield-Sanders’ hope that all audiences will fall in love with Toni Morrison and read or re-read her books.
The Washington Post's Alan Zilberman believes its the documentary is all about her books. "'The Pieces I Am' sometimes omits key episodes from her life. Morrison does not discuss the death of her son Slade, for instance, who co-authored children’s book with her and who died of cancer at 45. This omission merely confirms the film’s larger purpose: Its focus is on the work — “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Beloved” (1987); etc. — and what those books mean. Oprah and other interview subjects can sound a little hyperbolic in their adoration at times. Then again, her books have that effect on people."
Zilberman goes on to point out that "few writers have her ability to conjure a mental image, and her soothing voice is a delight. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve have read all — or any — of Morrison books. Either way, you may leave the theater wanting to pick one up on the way home. The good news is there are so many to choose from."
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is screening on July 3 at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater, AMC Sunset Place and AMC Aventura 24.