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Coconut Grove Native Directs New Toni Morrison Documentary

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Toni Morrison in "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," a Magnolia Pictures release.

Toni Morrison is among the most revered American authors of modern times. One of only two female writers to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison’s works have been read by millions of people all across the globe. 

Her life story is captured in the new documentary, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am." And director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders was born in Miami and attended Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. In 2017, Ransom Everglades presented him with the Founder's Alumni Award for Distinguished Service to the community.  

Aside from film, Greenfield-Sanders has a long career in photography,capturing portraits of adult film stars, celebrities and even presidents. Sundial host Luis Hernandez spoke with him about his childhood in Miami, his experience in photography and his vision behind the Toni Morrison film.

WLRN: There is this long history of talented black writers in the U.S., but I think what made Toni's style so unique is that she was intentionally writing to a black audience. 

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Very much so. Toni talks about the white gaze and she tells a story often about James Baldwin talking about the little white man sitting on your shoulder watching everything you do and critiquing you and controlling you in a sense. And she says once you knocked that little man off your shoulder you can really be free to tell your stories. And Toni always wrote from a black perspective and she was criticized for it of course for years. But I think she had the ability to write these very specific stories but still be universal. 

Morrison grew up with a poor family and I wondered how that helped forge her writing style?

You know interestingly she grew up in Lorain, Ohio which was a very poor but very mixed and kind of multi racial group of people. She talks about being with Italians and other black people and Poles and this whole mix of of poor people. It was a kind of a steel town on Lake Erie. And she didn't really experience much racism until she left and went to Howard University in Washington D.C. where there was a lot of issues of skin tone coloration within the black community itself at Howard, which was shocking to her.

I wondered about that time that she spent at Howard and how that really shaped her. It's interesting that you grow up one way and then like a lot of us we leave, we go to school and we find ourselves in that situation of 'wait a minute, this isn't the world that I knew.' 

Well yes. I grew up in Miami. I went to Ransom Everglades School. It was a very closed society. I was aware of racism and segregation in Miami because my mother had started the first arts school in the South in 1950. So I was brought up in an atmosphere where you know those issues were on the table. But when I went away to college it was a big change to live in New York with so many different people. 

When you were putting this film together, what were some of the moments that you wanted to highlight about her life and I'm wondering about those key turning points in her life. What were you looking for? 

You know I think what comes through throughout the film is the confidence of Toni Morrison. And I remember it in 1981 when she first walked into my studio. But you see it in the interviews that she gave over the years with Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers and Dick Cavett. She's just tremendous in those.

And I think that's what comes through. The way I shot this film, she's looking directly at the camera. And the other people who are talking about her are looking off camera. So Toni really tells her story to us the viewer and it's a very powerful way to shoot it and she's particularly extraordinary really, her voice is wonderful and she's a great storyteller by the way. 

How did you approach her on this idea and what was her reaction?

Well Toni's very private, doesn't allow biographies and won't do an autobiography. And I brought it up a couple of years ago and she did not say no. And I knew that was a yes ultimately. And her concern, I think was that it would take too much time away from her own work. So I assured her it wouldn't and she wouldn't have to really be involved. I really needed a couple of days of interviews and then to come back to her for more and we kind of had fun with the list (of people to be included in the documentary). 

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.