Sundance: Documentary shows the pieces of author Toni Morrison | ParkRecord.com

Sundance: Documentary shows the pieces of author Toni Morrison

A still from "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. The celebrated author appears on camera in the film, which explores aspects of her life with which fans of her work may be less familiar.
Timothy Greenfield Sanders/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Film documentarians and their artist subjects must each have an assured reliance on the other if their resultant collaboration is to have meaning.

Well, no worries here when it comes to filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and his longtime friend and the subject of his fourth Sundance premiere, the 1993 Nobel laureate in literature, Toni Morrison. Screening in the Documentary Premieres category, their film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” is the result of “trust” at a highly rewarding level.

With a Grammy for his film “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” plus another dozen HBO and PBS documentaries already tucked away in his resume, Greenfield-Sanders recently chatted with The Park Record from his office in New York City about this latest work, an obvious labor of love.

Deciding early on that a process of allowing Morrison’s peers, critics, and colleagues to speak on camera in an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition as seen through the prism of her literature would best serve the film, the author provided the director with a list of possible interviewees.

'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am'

Sunday, Jan. 27, 2:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre
Monday, Jan. 28, 6:30 p.m., Temple Theatre
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6
Friday, Feb. 1, 9 a.m., The Ray Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 2, 5:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6

“One of the joys about making this film was that Toni is so loved by everyone,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “Everyone was eager to participate.” Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis, Walter Mosely, Hilton Als, Sonia Sanchez and Peter Sellars are just a sampling of the range of luminaries who appear onscreen.

Winfrey, of course, had begun turning Morrison’s haunting novel “Beloved” into a feature film almost immediately after turning the final page. (As an aside, I must admit to an infatuation with Morrison’s storytelling that began with the same novel.)

Morrison and Greenfield-Sanders first struck up their long personal and professional friendship in 1981 when the author stopped by the photographer’s East Village studio for a Soho News cover shoot.

The bonding proved immediate and demonstrated a lasting shelf-life. Greenfield-Sanders would thereafter become her photographer of choice with Morrison becoming his main muse and resource on many of his future film documentaries.

In his director’s statement as part of the film’s production notes, Greenfield-Sanders states: “Conceptually, of the film’s 12 interviews only Toni would be filmed in my direct-to-camera style. Only she would look into the camera, directly addressing the viewer.

“Toni was open and intimate, thought-provoking and emotional. The result is powerful and historic. Our long friendship — nearly 38 years — comes through on camera.”

The other interviews were conducted utilizing an “off camera” technique whereby the camera shoots the subject at various angles. One can sense the elegance of the finished product in Greenfield-Sanders’ work almost through conversation alone, a vocabulary that would translate quite easily to the big screen.

Greenfield-Sanders continued: “They (the filmgoers) only know the Pulitzer Prize and American Book award-winning author. They don’t know Toni Morrison the longtime editor at Random House who becomes a Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, or the single mother raising two sons.”

Seemingly, we have a most perfect pairing of storytellers with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders as filmmaker and Toni Morrison as subject.


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