Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Renowned portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders captures the multifaceted soul of Nobel Prize– and Presidential Medal of Freedom–winning author Toni Morrison, 88, in his 13th film, Toni Morrison: The PiecesI Am, a full-length documentary.
Why tell the story of Toni Morrison's life? Toni and I have been friends for 38 years, so it is a long history of friendship and influence. She was the impetus for the Black List series [Greenfield-Sanders’ award-winning trilogy of films about prominent African Americans], which came about at a lunch at my house. We were doing some portraits, and we were talking about talented African Americans who were opera singers, and that kind of turned into the idea for the Black List — and all of those “list” films that I did. I have been very privileged to know Toni, and that friendship involved a lot of trust because she is very private.
She is often called a living legend. Toni is an iconic artist, so enormously gifted. Her work really reaches people in a way that is hard to describe. [She has] a very special way of writing, and there is a deepness to Toni that we all get out of her books. On top of that, what we show in the film is Toni's other career as a very important editor. Toni used her position at Random House to help publish works that might have had a harder time getting out there. Some people were in the streets demonstrating [during the Black Power movement], and Toni was doing her work in the publishing world, getting the written word out.
Was that a surprise? I knew she was an editor in a cursory way, but I didn't know the depth of it and what it was like working with mostly white men at a time when she was one of the few black editors and how strong she was to handle [it]. There was a part of the film where people laugh when she says, “I was smarter than they were. I wasn't intimidated. I knew what I knew."
The film uses art to enhance the storytelling. We worked with the Princeton archive and Columbia and Toni's personal collection of images. When you hear the story of Morrison's family leaving Georgia [to move north to avoid Southern racism], you can connect, so we used these wonderful paintings by Jacob Lawrence — “The Migration Series” — to illustrate. One of my goals here was to use fine art by African American artists, which you don't really see in a documentary. We kept cutting to those paintings by artists to explain what was going on in a beautiful way.
A Snapshot of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Krause, Johansen/Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Latest work: Toni Morrison documentary
Claim to fame: intimate portraits
Find him: @tgs on Instagram
Clearly, you did not twist any arms to get Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey and other luminaries to be a part of the documentary. Everyone has such reverence and love for Toni. Even the fine artists were very influenced by her — all have read her books and are very aware of her. When I called Mickalene [Thomas, the contemporary artist who crafted the opening montage using images of Morrison through the years], who I didn't know at the time, and I started to explain what I wanted, she said, “Of course. Anything you want — I'll do it."
As a filmmaker, you are known to be a visionary who spots other visionaries. What's your secret? I have been very good at kind of reading the zeitgeist. I am very aware of what is going on and what is going to happen. When we started the Black List, it was two years before Barack Obama ran for president. When the film came out, in 2008, he had just won the Democratic nomination. We were right there always at the right moment. And even with the Latino List, we were putting those films out as Latinos were becoming a very important power in the country. The Out List premiered the night before the Supreme Court announced marriage equality.
Your timing is excellent.
[Laughs] If only I could turn it into buying stocks!