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New documentary presents Toni Morrison in her own words

A recent documentary about Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison brings the renowned writer’s words to screen, while sharing an intimate personal look at her through the eyes of a close friend. John Yang sits down with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who has known Morrison for 38 years, to discuss how they met, her career as an editor at Random House and how she dispelled the “white gaze.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, she is a master of the written word.

    John Yang talks to the director of a new documentary about taking the power of a Nobel laureate from the page to the big screen.

    It is part of our Canvas series on art and culture.

  • John Yang:

    Toni Morrison's readers know the power of her written words. And now a new documentary gives film audiences to opportunity to hear the power of her spoken words. In "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," she talks about being a working single mother, the disdainful attitude of critics toward her early works, and the joy of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is the director of the film, which is playing nationwide.

    Thanks for joining us.

    So much of the delight of this film is just Toni Morrison speaking directly to the viewers. You have worked with her, you have known her. Was there a moment when you have thought, this is what I want to do and this is how I want to do it?

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    The Pieces I Am": You know, I have known Toni for 38 years.

    And I think the Toni that comes through in this film is the one I know very well, in a way that there's two — there's Toni Morrison and there's Chloe Wofford, her real name. And this is a bit of Chloe here, a really intimate look and feel from her.

  • John Yang:

    She talks in the film about the reaction to her second novel, "Sula."

    She's a Pulitzer Prize winner now. She's a Nobel Prize winner, but at the time, The New York Times was a little condescending. They said she was too good a writer to restrict herself to the provincial world of black characters.

    How did she deal with that? How did she talk about that?

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    She was appalled, of course.

    Today, we read that, and it's just so shocking, but, in those days, that was in The New York Times, a kind of perfectly normal thing to say by a reviewer.

    And Toni's whole mission really has been to kind of eliminate the white gaze, as she calls it. And she talks about the little white man sitting on your shoulder.

  • John Yang:

    Actually, we want to play that clip.

  • Toni Morrison:

    I didn't want to speak for black people. I wanted to speak to and to be among. It's us.

    So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate the white gaze. Jimmy Baldwin needs to talk about, the little white man that sits on your shoulder, and checks out everything you do and say.

  • Toni Morrison:

    So, I wanted to knock him off, and you're free.

    Now I own the world. I mean, I can write about anything, to anyone, for anyone.

  • John Yang:

    She also talked about writers, black writers, Ralph Ellison, Frederick Douglass, who wrote assuming their audiences, their readers were white.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Right.

  • John Yang:

    She mentioned Jim — James Baldwin there.

    Were other writers who she felt did what she was doing, got that white gaze off her shoulder?

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    I think that there weren't really.

    When Toni started to write in the late '60s — and her first book was published in 1970 — there was really no writing like that. She just really broke the canon, in a sense.

  • John Yang:

    And I have to ask.

    I mean, she talks about she didn't want the white gaze looking at what she was doing. But she chose to have her story told by a white man.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    You know, we have a long friendship.

    And I am honored, of course, that she chose me to do it and allowed me to do it. Toni is really a very private person. And when I first asked her a few years ago if she would let me do a documentary about her, she didn't say no. And I knew that was a sort of a yes. I took that as a yes.

  • John Yang:

    How did the relationship start? How did you first meet her? How did you…

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    She came into my studio in 1981 with — smoking a pipe, for a portrait for the Soho News. And I was a very young photographer, and I had read "The Bluest Eye," and we kind of had a friendship starting there.

    And then, over the years, I became her go-to photographer. I did a lot of her book covers and press. And she was the inspiration for a whole series I did on identity called "The Black List."

  • John Yang:

    When she won the Nobel Prize, you quoted a critic who you didn't identify in the film, but I went back and found. It was Stanley Crouch, saying: "I hope that this prize inspires her to write better books."

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Well, it's appalling. It's appalling.

    I didn't put his name in or kind of identify him because I didn't want to give him any more agency than he has. It's about Toni.

    And what I was trying to show there was how disgusting some of the remarks were about this black woman who had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and here were the kind of remarks about it in The Washington Post.

  • John Yang:

    There was also some things that I didn't know, that some people may not know, for instance, her career as an editor at Random House, and the way she helped other black writers find their voices.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Muhammad Ali published his great book "The Greatest," his book, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis.

    So many people that were kind of marginalized, and Toni said, no, no, no, this is going to be opened up here. We're going to bring in other voices.

    And she really was — kind of the scholarship that we read today in schools, that really the scholarship we read in schools today came out of a lot of Random House publications.

  • John Yang:

    And she also talked about negotiating that world of publishing, which is largely white males…

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    … as a black woman raising two children on her own.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    She says something like, it wasn't even interesting. I was more interesting than they were.

  • John Yang:

    And wasn't afraid to show it.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Exactly.

    And that confidence is something I remember feeling from her when I first met her, that there's this kind of amazing person there that has always felt secure in who she is.

  • John Yang:

    So, the people who have read Toni Morrison's words can now hear Toni Morrison's words.

    The film is "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the director.

    Thank you very much.

  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

    Thank you.

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