Alumna returns to Grinnell to present Toni Morrison documentary

Feb. 14, 2020 — Nobel laureate author Toni Morrison will soon become the first person whose name will adorn the walls of the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC) atrium.

Morrison is a fantastic choice for this honor, says Johanna Giebelhaus ’96, who has spent two years researching Morrison’s life and editing a two-hour documentary about her. Giebelhaus returned to Grinnell on Jan. 30 for a public screening of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. The movie premiered in theatres last year and will be broadcast on PBS in June.

Johanna Giebelhaus ’96
    Johanna Giebelhaus ’96

“Editorially speaking, it’s a very research driven film,” Giebelhaus says. “Wearing both hats (researcher and editor) strengthened the editing. Toni was incredibly generous. She opened her personal archive to us. I spent a lot of time rummaging through boxes in her basement. She also gave us access at Princeton where her official papers are.”

During the construction of Carnegie Hall in 1905, 11 names were inscribed into the Carnegie limestone frieze. The names – Caesar, Isaiah, Emerson, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Plato, Michelangelo, Darwin, Goethe, and Galileo – represented how the community understood the College value’s and identity at the times, says President Raynard S. Kington. Renovations to Carnegie and Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH) are ongoing as part of the overall HSSC project.

In a message to campus Jan. 29, Kington announced that in coming years, the College community will have an opportunity to select new names for inscription in the HSSC.

“We want those names to represent who we are today and who we aspire to be – names of thought leaders who embody our institution’s commitment to social responsibility, building inclusive and sustainable community, and pursuing knowledge in service to these values,” Kington says.

Morrison’s inscription will be unveiled at 4:15 p.m. Feb. 20 in the HSSC. A lecture about Morrison’s work will be presented the evening before by Shanna Benjamin, associate professor of English, at 7:30 p.m. in the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center (JRC) Room 101. Both events are free and open to all.

Giebelhaus fondly recalls her many classes in ARH as a history major, learning from professors emeritus Don Smith and George Drake ‘56. At the time, a career in filmmaking wasn’t a given, but she always was interested in storytelling. She started her career by teaching, and then working in refugee resettlement. Those fields further grew her interest in storytelling.

Johanna Giebelhaus ’96
Johanna Giebelhaus ’96 sits at the Strand Theatre in Grinnell before a public screening of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

“I was looking for ways to explore working in media and film, but didn’t have that path mapped out,” she says. “I eventually got a job New York with a production company that did work for PBS. That hooked me into the edit room. I was interested in what happened in the edit room because that’s where a lot of smart, creative work was happening. That’s where I knew I wanted to be.”

Giebelhaus has worked on films for film and television, including editing the critically acclaimed documentary feature God Grew Tired of Us and producing and editing The Congressman. In 2016, she edited HBO’s The Trans List, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

An acclaimed photographer, Greenfield-Sanders was longtime friends with Morrison and her official portrait photographer for many of her books. While she wasn’t interested in a biopic type of movie, Morrison didn’t rule out the documentary. After some additional nudging from Greenfield-Sanders, Morrison sat for her first interview in late 2016.

In the film, Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own literature. The film also includes interviews with Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, and Oprah Winfrey.

“We were looking at the most important themes in her career and work, and then what we needed to do develop those and visually represent it,” Giebelhaus says. Over 55 paintings by African American artists are used in the documentary. The award-winning musical score was put together by Kathryn Bostic, the first African American female score composer to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Morrison, who died in August at 88, did see the film before her passing. In all, the filmmakers accumulated more than 50 hours of footage. Giebelhaus had to whittle it down to two hours.

“The hardest part was making decisions about the final cuts and what was left on the cutting room floor,” Giebelhaus says, while noting a storyline about Shakespeare was one of the last items cut. “These were incredibly painful decisions. This film could have been a 10-part series and it still wouldn’t have been enough. The landscape of Toni’s work is so vast and important.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Visit the movie’s website to see the Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am trailer and how to stream the movie or order a DVD.

A formal process for nominating and selecting additional names for future inscriptions on the HSSC atrium is being developed. The nomination process will be open to Grinnell students, staff, faculty, and alumni and the selection process will include representatives from across the College community.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.