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Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Amid BLM Efforts, Toni Morrison Screening Aims to Help "Educate People to Action"

Kareem Tabsch makes a strong point about how movies can provide a window to understanding concepts and cultures.

"Films are meant to educate, entertain, and inspire," the cofounder of Miami's O Cinema says. “Sometimes, they do all three.”

When the killing of George Floyd on May 25 sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality, Tabsch knew it was vital for his nonprofit, independent cinema to become part of the conversation.

"Not only to be part of the conversation but to be part of making lasting, substantive change,” Tabsch says. “How can we take the power of film so we can push this discussion forward and create real activism? How can we educate people to action?"

In partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, O Cinema worked with Magnolia Pictures to put together a series of virtual film screenings, available at magnoliapictures.com/knightfoundationseries, selecting works that speak to systemic inequality and, in a way, serve as blueprints for effecting change.

"We talked to our friends at the Knight Foundation and explained to them the vision of showing films that could really contextualize the experience of black America and make it free and available to everyone," Tabsch says.

The seed having been planted in Miami, the Knight Foundation felt the series could have an impact in other communities as well, so they found partners to share the model in Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, and Philadelphia, among other cities.

"Educating ourselves is an ongoing process," explains Priya Sircar, the Knight Foundation's director/arts. "Watching these films is one way we can connect with the issue of racial inequality — both intellectually and emotionally — so that we’re better prepared to engage in the discussions locally, nationally and even internationally."

The series screened I Am Not Your Negro on June 7 and Whose Streets? on June 14, and it culminates on June 21 with Miami-born director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

The biopic, premiered locally at the Miami Film Festival in March 2019, chronicles the legendary storyteller’s life through her own voice as well as interviews with more than a dozen others. It is also an exploration of race, black history, and the human condition.

"Toni had an understanding of the issues that we are all beginning to talk about very openly today 40 years ago. She wrote from a black perspective with pride," Greenfield-Sanders says.

Morrison's words illustrate the challenges of being a black female writer in a time dominated by white male authors. She conveys her growing years in Lorain, Ohio, and her place in the world as a black woman who moved to New York and became the editor at a publishing company. The film is bolstered by perspectives on Morrison's writing and her personal impact from interviews with personalities including activist Angela Davis, photographer Fran Lebowitz, and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Morrison's novel, Beloved, into a feature film.

The Pieces I Am had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019; Morrison died in August of that year. She did get to see the movie before she died at age 88, according to Greenfield-Sanders.

Morrison is the only person in the film who speaks directly into the camera; others interviewed are shown looking off to the left or right side. It was a risky choice, admits Greenfield-Sanders, because it isn't the common technique. His background as a photographer was what gave him the idea and it worked.

"It made Toni the center of the film, and it made it powerful," he says.

When she tells the moviegoer directly about her determination to write without oppression, it's thought-provoking and powerful. "Toni's whole mission was to eliminate the white gaze, as she calls it. She talks about the little white man sitting on your shoulder," says Greenfield-Sanders.

"So, the first thing I had to do was to eliminate white gaze...the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do and say," Morrison says in the film. "So I wanted to knock him off, and you're free."

Greenfield-Sanders, who is white, says he knows a thing or two about the white gaze from his own experience growing up in Miami. In 1953, his mother, Ruth Greenfield, founded Miami’s Fine Arts Conservatory, which is considered by historians to be the first interracial arts school in Florida. Now 96, Greenfield still lives in the neighborhood of Spring Garden.

"I went to clarinet classes in an integrated music school, which was unheard of in the 1950s," says Greenfield-Sanders, a graduate of Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. "I was always conscious of the segregation in Miami and how it shouldn't be that way. My parents were blacklisted because of their political views. I think you are formed in some way by your upbringing — you either resist it or you learn from it.”

These are the kinds of conversations Tabsch hopes will come out of watching Greenfield-Sanders' film.

"We all have a lane that we exist in, and this is a lane where cinema can help incite change. This is the birth of where all this came from: activism through art," Tabsch says. "And this movie is just a great one to end on. We have to effect change, but we also have to create more spaces of Black America and where black storytellers can be told."

– Michelle F. Solomon, ArtburstMiami.com

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. 2 p.m. Sunday, June 21, through midnight Monday, June 22; o-cinema.org. Admission is free. Screen via magnoliapictures.com/knightfoundationseries.

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