Timothy Greenfield-Sanders first met Toni Morrison decades ago while working as a photographer. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, and Greenfield-Sanders finally managed to convince Morrison to sit down with him for a documentary about her life and work.
“I broached it with her about five or six years ago and she didn’t say no, which I took as a yes. And as we talked about it, she said things like, ‘Oh, I’m so busy, What do you need from me? What’s it going to require?’ And when she said that I knew I had her. I knew that she’d do it,” he said following a screening of his film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “I said, ‘I really just need you to do a couple of interviews and to let us have access to your archive and to your personal photographs and things like that.’ And she said, ‘Okay, I think I can do that.'”
The film took about four and a half years to complete, including four or five days of interviews with the author, plus 13 more subjects — including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, and more luminaries. The finished film clocks in at two hours, but it could’ve been a miniseries with all the material they had to work with.
“We had about 50 to 60 hours of footage all in all, including all the archival interviews, so there was a lot of interview material to work with,” said producer Johanna Giebelhaus. “Toni deserves 10 hours. I’m really serious. When you look at it that way this felt incredibly daunting to put her work, and all of her themes, into this artificial container of a documentary film, this small container, really, and to boil it down — biographies themselves are really daunting, because how do you approach that?”
Ultimately, Greenfield-Sanders focused on themes over anything else.
“It was a very research-driven film, very thematically driven film, and everything in the film connects to Toni’s work, ultimately,” Giebelhaus said. “And her work is giving us a lens into American history, African-American history, this broader lens of what her life’s project is, which is telling a bigger story.”
That’s why one of the interviewees isn’t included — a section on Shakespeare featuring Peter Sellers just didn’t fit — but also why the film taught Greenfield-Sanders something about his longtime friend.
“When you have a friendship it’s so different, because you eat with the person, and you do photo shoots and you hang out at your different events and things and there’s a kind of relationship that way, but you don’t get into depth about the body of work of someone like that,” he said. But in the process of making the film, he learned much more about Morrison’s work as an editor at Random House and all the underrepresented voices she championed there.
Morrison, who died in August at 88, did see the film before her passing. Greenfield-Sanders brought it to her home ahead of its Sundance debut.
“We took it to show it to her and sat with her. And at the end of it, she turned to me and she said, ‘I like her.’ Which I just thought was wonderful. She had a little smile when she said it.”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year's most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.
'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...