LORAIN — One well-known Lorainite — who is also the library system’s most famous ex-employee — will be featured in a documentary premiering next month at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, was originally conceived for PBS’ “American Masters” series, following Morrison’s life and literary career — including her time growing up in Lorain.
Since its announcement last year, it was selected to premiere at the international film festival, which runs Jan. 24 to Feb. 3 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Morrison, 87, is the author of 11 novels, including “The Bluest Eye,” and “Beloved.” Before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, Morrison grew up in Lorain during the Great Depression.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford to George and Ramah Wofford, Morrison graduated from Lorain High School in 1949. She grew up in central Lorain and was born in a house on Elyria Avenue, according to librarian Cheri Campbell.
“She’s always spoken well of Lorain,” Campbell said. “I know there’s some attitudes here of, well, Toni’s basically too big for (here). Well, no, she’s got a life somewhere else, but she always talked really well on-camera when she comes back.”
Growing up in poverty, her family bounced from rented house to rented house throughout the city. None of the homes are still standing.
And of course, Campbell said, Morrison worked at the library. In its former home in the historic Carnegie Building on West 10th Street, she spent hours attempting to shelve tomes.
“From what I gather, she was a shelfer and I’ve heard interviews where she’s told the story more than a few times of how she was basically fired from that job because she was reading too much. But she ended up in working in the director’s office,” Campbell said.
Morrison has talked fondly about Lorain in interviews since she moved away. Her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” is set in Lorain, and makes reference to the streets she walked on and at least one ice cream parlor she and her three siblings frequented.
Campbell said this film has Morrison’s blessing, which could be in part due to her longtime friendship with the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
“(Producer) Johanna (Giebelhaus) said that (Morrison) has seen the middle cut — right now they’re just doing the final editing — and Toni loved it,” Campbell said. “Johanna said she was telling more Lorain stories afterwards.”
None of the footage was filmed in Lorain, but much of the research was done here. The Lorain Public Library and Lorain Historical Society hosted Giebelhaus in August 2017.
“I really thought they’d be a little bit snooty to work with, but they’ve been a delight,” Campbell admitted.
She said Giebelhaus spent hours in the library’s Toni Morrison Reading Room, which features copies of Morrison’s books in other languages, as well as biographies and other memorabilia about the author.
Kaitlyn Donaldson with the Historical Society also hosted Giebelhaus for hours at a time, providing newspaper clippings and photos.
“We love to have been able to help, and we’re just really looking forward to the movie. It’s phenomenal, we’re excited,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson’s boss, Executive Director Barb Piscopo, treated Giebelhaus to a tour of Lorain — pointing out where a younger Morrison may have walked to school or bought candy.
“It really meant a lot for us to be involved in this project,” Piscopo said. “The fact that it’s gone to Sundance is incredible, but just to think that it was going to be shown on the ‘American Masterpiece’ series for PBS was pretty cool. … To be able to help in some small way in that production really means a lot to the Historical Society.”
A date has yet to be set for the film’s premiere on PBS’ “American Masters” series.
An unintended gap
In helping Giebelhaus with her research, Campbell said there was one thing that surprised her. While she knows all the facts and tidbits of Morrison’s life, what she wasn’t expecting to find was the deficit of African-American history the library’s archives have.
“I know Johanna was asking us for material based on African-Americans, and we didn’t have that much because I don’t think I realized how deeply segregated Lorain was, as most cities were. … Lorain is basically like anywhere else.
Campbell added, “The material wasn’t collected … because people at that time they were focused on white people and that was something that I found that was really surprising.”
She said she is making a concerted effort to collect more diverse photographs and articles to tell the entire story of the International City — not a whitewashed version.
“We failed as much as earlier librarians failed,” she said. “You just didn’t really think ...”