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Toni Morrison doc filmmaker on her banned books: "People are afraid ... of powerful black women"

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Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, editor, and educator, is as formidable as any of the steely characters in her books. In the stirring new documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has Morrison talk about her life, her childhood — there is a terrific story about how she learned about the power of words — as well as her work as a writer and editor. Morrison discusses her experiences demanding equal pay for her work, creating her complex novels, and challenging white male society with her thoughts about race.

Greenfield-Sanders, who previous showcased Morrison in his 2008 documentary, “The Black List” (Volume One), illustrates this fantastic portrait of the artist, with images ranging from Morrison’s personal photographs, as well as artworks by Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and Gordon Parks, among others. He also interviews Morrison’s editorial colleague Robert Gottlieb, as well as her friends and contemporaries, including poet Sonia Sanchez, professor Farah Griffin, writer Walter Mosley, critic Hilton Als, activist Angela Davis, humorist Fran Lebowitz, and of course, Oprah Winfrey, who helped adapt “Beloved” into a feature film.

The portrait that emerges here is suitably reverential. Many of the interviewees describe the power of Morrison’s writing (Oprah is particularly enthusiastic). There are discussions of strength, suffering, and resilience. Greenfield-Sanders tightly focuses on key moments: her editorial prowess and building a canon of African-American books; the publication of her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” (which has repeatedly been banned from schools); controversies over “Beloved;” and Morrison winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Clips from Morrison’s media appearances on “Charlie Rose,” “The Dick Cavett Show,” and elsewhere flesh out the author's thoughts and feelings, perceptions and reception.

Salon recently spoke with Greenfield-Sanders about his documentary, which screened at AFI Docs this week, and its remarkable subject.

What was the first Morrison book you read and how did it impact you?

“The Bluest Eye.” I was stunned by it. I’d never read anything like it. I met Toni in 1981, and she had three books out by then, and I read “Song of........

© Salon