Friday, March 22, 2019


Florida Premiere of film biography of first Black Female Nobel Prize Winner directed by  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Dwight Casimere with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Director-Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am

                                         The author in a moment of deep reflection

by Dwight Casimere

Celebrated photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders reaches deep into his roots as a cinematographer and his treasure trove of photographs and remembrances assimilated across the landscape of a more than 30 year friendship with the trailblazing author to create a complex, all-encompassing portrait in  the biographical film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, in its Florida Premiere as a Marquee Presentation of the 36th Miami Film Festival.

Archival footage, artful animation and initimate photographs are interspersed with Morrison's own musings, spoken  directly to the camera, and reflections by the likes of revolutionary Angela Davis, who Morris recruited to write her autobiography at the tender age of 28,  Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks and her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, Peter Sellars, and others. The celebrated poet Sonia Sanchez offers some particularly illuminating reflections on the great writer, that are as indelible as the words of Morrison herself. Expert cinematography by Graham Willoughby, skillful editing by Johanna Giebelhaus, and a haunting score by Kathryn Bostic, give the film its  lingering impact.

Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the 88 year old author grew up in a multi-ethnic working class community that she described in the film as a "true melting pot."  Her parents instilled in her a love of learning and reading, which was also, perhaps, planted in her DNA by a grandfather who said he read the Bible, cover-to-cover five times. The feat is extraordinary, because, at the time, it was considered illegal for a black person to learn to read. The consequence of being caught was death. That declaration in the film is accompanied by one of Greenfield-Sander's  powerful black and white portraits of a pair of work-worn black hands, resting in an artful position on top of a Bible. That image sets the tone for the superb blend of visual images and spoken word that propels this superb biographical documentary.

Morrison's enrollment in Howard University in 1949,  immersed her further into Black culture and identity. It was also where she met her  husband, Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect and faculty member in 1958, after she had returned to teach there.

After a stint as an editor with a publishing company in Syracuse, New York, she became the first black editor at Random House in New York, where she would blaze a trail for not only herself, but a host of other black luminaries, including Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali,  Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gayl Jones, whose autobiographies she edited and published. 

Morrison's own writing had an opportunity to flourish and gain a worldwide audience at Random House.  Her first novel, the Bluest Eye, took the literary world by storm in 1970. Subsequent efforts, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Jazz, Paradise, and God Help the Child, cemented her name in the pantheon of great African American authors. Eventually, her longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb convinced her to give up her  position to devote full time to her writing. 

The year 1993, Morrison made history as the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. We see her in a regal gown as she accepts the award and gives a landmark speech on the power of language and literature. 

                                           Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993

                                      As the trailblazing author and editor at Random House

                                  In recent years as Professor Emeritus at Princeton University

In 1998, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for Beloved, which was simultaneously turned into an Academy Award nominated feature (Best Costume Design-Colleen Atwood)  film produced by its director, Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey among others and starring Winfrey and Danny Glover. The film garnered an Oscar nomination and critical acclaim, but registered little at the box office. It was still an important film because of its story, culled from the bloody pages of slavery's history.

                                    Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in Beloved

Morrison told how the film was based on the true story of a slave woman who chose to murder her own children rather than see them raised in slavery. Only the daughter is actually killed, and the woman is tried for murder. The issue at trial is whether she should be punished for destroying property, (i.e. slaves) or for murder, which would affirm her identity as a full human being, the thought of which was antithetical to the concept of slavery.  Morrison said the story haunted her for years and begged for her to turn it into a novel. The film was a failure, but the concepts it raised are still being grappled with to this day.

In the final minutes of her film, Morrison tells how the concept for Beloved came to her in a vision. She saw an apparition of a fully clothed woman emerge from the waters off the edge of her waterfront home, complete with an  ornate hat on her head. The woman sat briefly on a bench at the end of the pier, then suddenly disappeared. That, Morrison said, was the spirit of Beloved, and the inspiration for her novel.

Morrison remains a formidable voice to this day. At 88, she is professor emeritus at Princeton and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012. 

              Toni Morrison receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am


Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Producer: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Johanna Giebelhaus, Chad Thompson, Tommy Walker
Executive Producer: Michael Kantor
Production Company: Perfect Day Films
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Cinematographer: Graham Willoughby
Editor: Johanna Giebelhaus
Cast: Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Oprah Winfrey, Hilton Als, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Robert Gottlieb, Farah Griffin, Russell Banks, David Carrasco, Paula Giddings, Richard Danielpour, Peter Sellar

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