Though her next milestone birthday will arrive in 2021, acclaimed 88-year-old novelist Toni Morrison is receiving many bouquets now thanks to the Timothy Greenfield-Sanders film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Alongside Una Great Movie, it also kickstarted the 21st Annual Roxbury International Film Festival (June 19-29) on opening night at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Following those screenings, RoxFilm will host films including Wheels, Power to Heal: Medicare and The Civil Rights Revolution, Solace, The Color of Art, and the New Zealand-based Vai (directed by eight different women), to name just a few. The festival’s closer will be the slam poets documentary Don’t Be Nice. Another screening is a timely response to the misreported and whitewashed 2018 film Green Book—the nonfiction feature The Green Book: The Guide to Freedom.
“It’s counternarrative,” said Lisa Simmons, director of the festival. “These filmmakers are creating or bringing these stories to the screen, and offering a more diverse, different take of black and brown people. It’s like, that was ‘your’ history, now let me tell you my history and its importance. That’s what this festival has always been about. We want these narratives for our community, but we also want others to [become cognizant] of the spectrum. And some of the films are hard, like ‘Fair Game [: Surviving a 1960 Georgia Lynching].’ These stories tend to be told in independent film and once you know these stories, they change you.”
One film that may have a broader reach, due to its iconic subject, is The Pieces I Am. Morrison, since her startling 1970 debut The Bluest Eye, has been celebrated for her vivid, ancestrally laced explorations of black lives, and most affirmingly black womanhood, both in her novels and her nonfiction work.
Pieces will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures, the same company that pushed the 2017 film I Am Not Your Negro. While that production, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, analyzed the backstory of James Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, the most endearing attribute of Pieces is that Morrison’s appearance is not all archival. Within seconds of its beginning, her honeyed voice is heard, and then, there she is, with her gray locs, sitting comfortably, speaking directly to you. Though she’s partaken in televised interviews (notably the 2015 BBC special Toni Morrison Remembers) and has been the focus of print media profiles for decades, Pieces stands apart in that it feels like a complete tribute. It’s meditative and extensive and showcases her indebtedness to the power of the pen.
“To make the writing interesting to me, it’s not just writing. It’s I don’t know what this means, but I have to find out, and I have to explore all the characters’ attitudes and so on. I got to know. I really got to know,” Morrison shares in the film. “And the only way I can know and own what I know is to write it. And then let you read it. So we both know.”
The film developed organically after years of Greenfield-Sanders and Morrison collaborating on photo shoots, and later on, interview shorts, all through which they became dear friends. They first met when he photographed her portrait for the Soho News in 1981.
“I think Toni enjoyed [filming Pieces],” Greenfield-Sanders told Dig in an interview conducted last week. “Like, at one point we had did her initial interviews and the interviewees we wanted [such as her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, Susan Sanchez, Farah Griffin, Oprah Winfrey, and Fran Lebowitz], and she turned to me and said, ‘So when are you coming back?’ Once she was on board, I was excited about this project.”
What (to some) may be a salient behind-the-scenes detail of Pieces is that its director is a white male. It perhaps calls back to Jennie Livingston, who directed the momentous 1990 nonfiction film Paris is Burning about LGBT+ ballroom performers of color but was then reduced by some black scholars for being a white female outsider with her “white gaze”—this gaze that’s prompted even presumably benign white artists to abuse their allyship (such as Carl Van Vechten naming his 1926 novel Nigger Heaven) is a phenomenon that Morrison has passionately and continuously deconstructed in her lifetime. (“It’s as though [they believe] our lives have no meaning, no depth, without the white gaze,” Morrison states in one throwback clip.)
As a documentarian, Greenfield-Sanders was extremely aware of this potential dichotomy, and in actuality, Pieces takes the white critics of the past to task for challenging and feeling threatened by Morrison’s radical stance on black visibility.
“I remember talking to Lorna Simpson, whose art is in the film, and she said to me, at one point, ‘Honey, you better get [this film] right!’” he recalled with a chuckle. “So, I surrounded myself with people from Mickalene Thomas, all the African American artists whose work is in the film, to my editor Johanna Giebelhaus, producer Tommy Walker, who’s been with me since The Black List (2009) days, and composer Kathryn Bostic. I tried to get all of these voices with me at the table, who would make sure we were in the right direction and make no mistakes and be conscious. We certainly don’t soft pedal anywhere in the film.”
Furthermore, Pieces humanizes an American lit giant, who for years also worked as an influential Random House book editor who raised her two boys as a single mom.
“The Toni Morrison I know, you see in the film,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “And people may be surprised because she has such a mythic stature. You’re not expecting her there, telling you stories, being funny, and these marvelous expressions on her face.”
While Pieces documents, in addition to Morrison, a chronicling of Black America, Jonathan Schwartz’s cinema verite-style Codeswitching (6.24, 7:15pm, Hibernian Hall) is a case study of a more specific aspect of that America, the black youth. A hyperlocal, transparent documentary, it spotlights the truth of being a black, Bostonian METCO student attending a predominantly white, suburban high school. The title is a term often spoken in communities of color to describe the act of assimilation, and shown are one-on-one talks between past and current students about their METCO experiences. Also seen is former pupil Ronald Settles returning to Roxbury’s Academy Homes, where he used to get picked up by a school bus to attend Lexington High.
“There was a precursor to METCO called Project Exodus that my parents were involved in,” Schwartz said. “So as a kid, I had early exposure to issues around busing, race, and educational equity in Boston. In essence, this film serves as a sequel to On the Line (2016) that dealt with METCO’s history. Whereas our film is more character-based.”
He revealed that those “prototypical” of METCO were asked to be involved, and Kandice Sumner, Weston High grad and current Boston public school educator, and from Sierra Leone, Fatima Sidibe of Swampscott High, delivered the most poignant conversation. Together, they bonded over the underdisccused effects of trauma, insecurity, and neglect that young black girls can especially experience, by and large, when in white areas.
“I wanted to make a space for myself and yet felt like I wasn’t allowed to,” Sumner disclosed. “At home, I was the eldest and had to be a certain way. Then at school, I had to put on a happy face, be a certain way, [couldn’t] be too black, gotta be this and that, and I knew that I was always under the gaze, the white gaze.”
The bulk of their talk is a stark contrast to how Settles’ old pal, Robert Parris, reminisced about the perks of being a Lexington athlete.
“I know a lot of suburban METCO supporters,” Schwartz said, “And most are unaware of what young women in METCO go through. To a certain extent, maybe they’re more focused on hosting the boys on the basketball team, and their kid is friends with the young black male athlete. They don’t know that there [could be] a lot of hurting for black girls, and not only in adjusting to a white school but [experiencing a disconnect] when back home. [Ricky Settles, Settles’ nephew] expressed this too.”
Schwartz concluded, “The story we tell is deliberate. Contrasting gender, generation, experience. Editorially, that was our intent and I’m hoping to provoke open discussion.”
THE ROXBURY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2019 RUNS 6.19–29 AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS IN THE BOSTON AREA, INCLUDING THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS. SEE ROXFILMFEST.COM FOR THE FULL SCHEDULE OF THIS YEAR’S SCREENINGS, AS WELL AS FOR TICKETS, FESTIVAL PASSES, AND OTHER INFORMATION
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM ALSO OPENS AT THE KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA ON FRI 6.28.