Films

The Art of Documentary Filmmaking

There is a very special place in my heart for docs. My love for this art form feels bottomless. It’s a genre that I respect, continue to explore, and master. I champion documentary films and filmmakers by watching and writing about them. I am happy to report that I also work on them.

 

Toni Morrison: Pieces I am

(American Masters, 2019)

This artful film began as a dream.

After reading Morrison’s entire body of work for pleasure on my free time–eleven novels, three non-fiction tomes, including the classics, The Black Book and Playing in the Dark: On Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, I wanted to see a documentary film about the Nobel Laureate whose work captured my imagination. When I searched the American Masters roster in 2015 for a documentary on Morrison and realized there was none, I was horrified and enraged by the erasure. In fact, I expected to see several films by the only American living novelist to have won the world’s top literary prize. Inspired by Morrison’s famous exhortation, “if there is a book you want to read and but hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” I was moved to want to make a film about her life. With Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a lifelong friend of Morrison directing and helming the project, the dream became a reality. I hope it is the first of many film tributes to America’s literary giant.

Interviewing Morrison about her life, artistic process, and work was one of the most terrifying and enthralling experiences of my career. Being with Morrison at her River House where Beloved and many of her novels were born was a magical experience. She was generous with her time, witty, fearless, and brilliant and thankfully–it’s all captured on film. As a reader, you appreciate the novelist’s deft, skill and steely intellect. In person, it is more evident why she is regarded as the greatest writer writing in English today. She is one of the most formidable intellects in American letters and history. It was illuminating to unpack the significance of Morrison’s oeuvre with her contemporaries and friends, including the formidable Oprah Winfrey, Peter Sellars, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Sonia Sanches, New Yorker critic, Hilton Als, and Morrison’s legendary editor, Robert Gottlieb.

Morrison is a world treasure whose novels inspired generation of readers, especially Black women readers in America and from around the globe. She was also an editor at Random House. While working at the publishing house she ensured that many of the voices of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement were chronicled by editing and championing their work. Brilliant Black women writers whose work she edited include Gayle Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and others. Once you begin reading Morrison, you are pulled into a lovely vortex. Morrison is the entry point into a larger universe of Black art which is deep and wide and oh, so beautiful.

My hope is for audiences, the newly initiated readers and old fans, to return to Morrison’s timeless classics, sobering speeches, and meditations, and feel lifted and inspired. Morrison left us gold and in her brilliance, we all shine. The film airs on PBS in 2019.

The Women’s List

(American Masters, 2016)

The List films is a series of six documentaries by Greenfield-Sanders that explore race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and culture in America through intimate interviews with exemplary figures from communities who have been historically marginalized.

In The Women’s List, I interviewed some of the most iconic and trailblazing women in America–Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Laurie Anderson, Alicia Keys, (pictured left) Rosie Perez, Betsey Johnson, Margaret Cho, Edie Falco, among others.

The women shared intimate details about their life journeys– challenges and joys of being a 21st century woman in America. I was in awe about how much in the face of adversity these rebels rose and continue to shine.

The American Masters doc originally aired on PBS and is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

The Boomer List

(American Masters, 2014)

I share interview credits in The Boomer List which originally aired on PBS for American Masters. Boomer tells the story of the trailblazing generation told through one iconic baby boomer a year — from 1956 to 1964. The film features Billy Joel, Eve Ensler, Deepak Chopra, Amy Tan, (pictured right) Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Hilfiger, John Leguizamo, and others.

The pleasure of exploring origin stories within the context of the wild and legendary generation was lots of fun. After all, this was the generation that tripped on LSD, ushered in the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution, were part of the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Stonewall, created laptops and smart phones, sported bell bottoms, and jammed at Woodstock.

The American Masters doc originally aired on PBS and is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

The Latino List,Volumes I & II 

(HBO, 2011, 2013)

I share interview credits on The Latino List, Volumes I & II. As with other List films, the larger story of a community is told through the prism of individual portraits. Featuring trailblazing newsmakers Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor and Eva Longoria, America Ferrara, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Christy Turlington (pictured below,) and many others,  the film was my entry into the series. In fact, my first interview in the series and still, one of my favorites, for reasons that will only be appreciated when you watch the film, was the Miami-born rapper, Pitbull. (Pictured left.)

The films originally aired on HBO and are now streaming on Netflix.

There are three additional List films also directed by Greenfield-Sanders and produced by the same team with different interviewers.

The talented Samuel McConnell, Janet Mock, and Elvis Mitchell conducted interviews for The Out List, and The Trans List, and the film that inspired the series,The Black List. 

These distilled conversations are a window into the formidable hearts and minds of extraordinary humans, and also a peek into the larger stories of communities that they are part of. The films highlight the power of reframing narratives and help destroy walls that have been imposed on marginalized people–the ones who have been othered. To hear each tell their story is to be moved by the bigness of the human spirit.

 

Photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The Women’s List

The Latino List .Vol I

The Boomer List

The Latino List .Vol II

The Women’s List

The Boomer List

The Latino List .Vol I

The Latino List .Vol II