The 21st Roxbury International Film Festival will kick off on June 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts with a screening of “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” The festival, a celebration of media makers of color, spans 10 days and features 68 films from around the world.
“We just felt like Toni Morrison is a really great way [to start the festival],” festival director and cofounder Lisa Simmons said in a telephone interview. “Because she’s an incredibly strong female figure and her work is so dedicated to black audiences, we just felt like it was a perfect fit for us to set the tone of the festival with this incredible look at her life.”
Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the documentary examines the life and career of Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Greenfield-Sanders, who has a longstanding friendship with Morrison, decided more than four years ago that he wanted to help chronicle her life and impact.
“I knew her as a friend and I knew the highlight parts of her career, but once you start to research a film and a person, you get real depth of understanding,” Greenfield-Sanders said in a telephone interview. While he was familiar with Morrison’s work, he was amazed at the wealth of her accomplishments at the publishing firm Random House, where she was a longtime editor, and her impact teaching at Princeton. Viewers, according to the director, have had similar reactions.
“People are touched,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “They feel that they know Toni better and feel that Toni is talking to them.” It’s his hope that making the rounds at a variety of film festivals will help spread viewership.
“I think the festival circuit is important for any film,” Greenfield-Sanders said. “It gives you a chance to kind of reach serious filmgoers and get word out about your film; and all of that kind of expands on itself and brings a bigger audience to you.”
Other featured films slated to screen at RIFF include Jennifer Sharp’s “Una Great Movie,” Tchaiko Omawale’s “Solace,” David Weathersby’s “Color of Art,” Yoruba Richen’s “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom,” Stuart Harmon’s “The Money Stone,” Jewel McPherson’s “Negroland,” Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter,” and Max Powers’s “Don’t Be Nice.” RoxFilm will also hold a pre-festival screening of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won the 2019 Academy Award for best animated feature film.
“If you want to see incredibly beautiful stories told on screen, we’ve got 68 of them,” Simmons said. The initial passion behind the festival, she said, came when she learned that many Boston filmmakers of color weren’t getting into other festivals.
“It's just grown over the course of the last 21 years to not just be films outside of [the] Boston-Roxbury area, but internationally as well,” Simmons said. “We were getting a lot of submissions from overseas, and we thought, well, it's time for us to become an international festival.”
“It's just been growing ever since,” Simmons added. “And we pride ourselves a lot on it being because the way that we conduct ourselves and the way that we respect and honor filmmakers.”