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Toni Morrison, Miles Davis Docs Shine at AFI Film Festival

How do you choose between 72 films from 17 countries, including six world premieres, when looking at the schedule for the annual AFI DOCS Film Festival?

The annual event took place in the D.C. area June 19-23. The 17th edition of the festival was a unique opportunity for audiences, filmmakers and policy leaders to engage and connect through film. Reviewed in this article are the documentaries about author Toni Morrison and musician Miles Davis:

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”

I, like many fans of Toni Morrison, find her books can be difficult to read. This documentary explains Morrison’s path to the written word is thoughtful and curious in a way that I have heard painters and photographers speak about their art.

Through the lens of director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the AFI DOCS the audience could feel Morrison speaking directly to us, individually. Morrison’s look, her pronouncements and tone comes through the screen as if she is really saying only to you, “I know you’re not that dumb, listen to me,” in a motherly, professorial manner.

Greenfield-Sanders, known primarily as a still photographer, met Morrison in 1981. He was the photographer behind the HBO documentary and photography exhibit, “The Black List.”

“There is always a perfect time for a film,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “If I’m going to do a film on Toni, it had to be now. She is a very private person who does not do things like this.”

Like most adult behaviors, I contend those behaviors are rooted in the way one was raised. Morrison learned the power of words in her early childhood when her mother saw Morrison and her sister wrote out the F-word from something they saw posted in their hometown. Morrison did not know what the word meant, but her mother’s reaction was a teachable moment.

From being a part of Muhammad Ali’s press tour to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature to now, “The Pieces I Am” shows that Morrison makes an impact by being straightforward and unafraid.

The documentary includes accolades from Oprah Winfrey, writer and critic Hilton Als and authors Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz and Walter Mosley. All give examples of Morrison not being afraid to respond to those who have criticized her ongoing themes about African American and female experiences. What else is she to write about? Readers have navigated through these themes in some Morrison’s many critically acclaimed works, including novels “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” “Song of Solomon,” and “Beloved.” This is a moving, enlightening documentary that must be seen.

Sonia Sanchez, also in the documentary, says it best about how to handle Morrison’s books: “You read one, you cry, then you gotta laugh.”

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” will be released on June 28 in several cities including in the D.C. area at the Landmark E Street Cinema and the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.

To view the movie trailer, go to http://bit.ly/MorrisonDoc.

“Miles David: The Birth of the Cool”

If you want to categorize Miles Davis as only a jazz musician, this documentary will change your mind. His world of music, painting and fashion are fully explored in Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool,” directed and co-produced by Stanley Nelson, the award-winning director and producer behind the 2018 HBCU documentary’s “Tell Them We are Rising.”

Nelson takes you into Davis’s world of being intelligent, talented, self-absorbed and abusive. In the film, the words of Davis are through the voice of actor Carl Lumby. The roots of his abusive behaviors conveyed in this film by his female companions and his management team and fellow musicians were revealed in the volatile relationship between his parents, including the fight when his mother wanted him to learn to play the violin, but his dad wanted him to play the trumpet.

Throughout the film we hear from Frances Taylor, the dancer and Davis’ first wife. She told of how they were the “it” couple. Her career was cut short because Davis wanted Taylor to devote all of her time to him. Taylor’s involvement with this documentary is critical and sad as she died last year before the film’s first screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“Francis’ story serves as a composite for Davis’s relationship with women,” London said. “We had to tell every aspect of his life.”

A childhood friend interviewed for the documentary told of how Davis was considered weird. One thing Davis liked to do was to be outside alone to listen to the sounds of birds and other outdoor goings on. What the audience of the documentary realizes that is that Davis heard everything and could roll those sounds into his compositions.

From the beginnings of his career performing with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to the last years of performing with Prince and with Quincy Jones at Montreux Jazz Festival, viewers are taken onto Davis’ creative process. According to admirers, Davis was ahead of the curve. Writer and critic Greg Tate credits Davis creating a template for hip-hop. Then there was that period when Davis stopped playing from 1969-1975 following a severe car accident.

“Him not playing was like not having water,” says his son Erin Davis.

Davis died in 1991. “Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool” is another must see film. It will be air on the PBS series “American Masters” in early 2020.

To view the movie trailer, go to http://bit.ly/DavisDoc.

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