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Artful & intimate: Documentary looks at the life of author Toni Morrison – in her own words

Toni Morrison is the subject of the documentary, “Toni Morrision: The Pieces I Am.” (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Timothy Greenfield-Sanders first met Toni Morrison around 1981.

It was when her book, “Tar Baby,” was gearing up to be released.

“She sat for me for a portrait,” he recalls.

The friendship lasted nearly 40 years until the writer’s death in 2019.

Greenfield-Sanders spent the last four years working on the documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which will premiere at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, on New Mexico PBS as part of the “American Masters” series.

The documentary is an artful and intimate meditation on the legendary Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author that examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures)

From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali, from the front lines with Angela Davis to her own riverfront writing room, Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own literature.

Inspired to write because no one took a “little black girl” seriously, Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. Woven together with a rich collection of art, history, literature and personality, the film includes discussions about her many critically acclaimed works, including novels “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon,” her role as an editor of iconic African American literature and her time teaching at Princeton University.

“The film is more important than ever,” he says. “If you look at what people are talking about in the world today, these are themes that Toni has been talking about. The master narrative. The white gaze.”

Greenfield-Sanders then referenced Morrison’s interview with Charlie Rose, 27 years ago.

“Don’t you understand, that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche,” Morrison told Rose.

She continued: “… I always knew that I had the moral high ground. … My feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

Greenfield-Sanders says the biggest challenge came in editing the film.

He says because Morrison doesn’t write in chronological order, he didn’t want the film to be that way.

Toni Morrison writes during a portion of filming for the documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

“We did these pods and sectioned the entire film,” he says. “My editor liked to say that ‘Toni left us crumbs to follow’ in the editing process.”

Morrison’s writing transcended genre and race, Greenfield-Sanders says.

“It’s true, her audience isn’t just black America,” he continues. “Her audience is all over the world and they can relate to her themes because while they are specific, they are universal. She could write that way with skill and language. Every time I read her books, I see the beauty.”

Greenfield-Sander says the film had a successful run during its theatrical release in 2019.

Being able to partner with PBS opens the doors to a wider audience.

“I can’t think of a bigger way of reaching an audience,” he says. “It’s very exciting because viewers get a chance to be part of the conversation.”

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