“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” This is the striking quote that begins this wonderful documentary that looks at the legacy and life of this consummate author and scholar.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is a straightforward documentary that works due to the power of its subject and the beauty of her words and energy.
It’s also an enthralling examination of one of her generation’s most significant black writers and one of the most important cultural critics to ever put pen to paper.
Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders pulls vibrant recollections from many of Morrison’s fellow friends and colleagues who speak of how they were moved and inspired by her work. However, the director truly achieves greatness when letting his subject tell her own story.
Morrison speaks directly to the camera (made comfortable by her friendship with director Greenfield-Sanders) and at age 88, I’m happy to report that the icon is still wise, funny, and full of life.
The author speaks on what led her to writing and how she wanted to create works that reflected the black experience and debunk the myth that the lives of black people “have no meaning apart from the white gaze.” She wanted to create works that offered an honest perspective of African-American characters that were all too rare in the American canon.
One of the film’s pluses is how it charts Morrison’s rise to literary fame into the story of how a novelist finds the freedom to write stories from the standpoint of their own culture.
Morrison has been writing for almost fifty years, publishing her debut novel “The Bluest Eye” in 1970 while working as an editor for Random House and raising two young sons, on her own, due to divorce, that which the author doesn’t say much about beyond saying it happened.
Through Morrison’s own words we come to understand the soul that went into novels such as “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon,” “Sula,” “Tar Baby,” and “Beloved” and how they humanized their black characters. The importance to their author that these works stood out as realistic depictions of African Americans in a sea of aggressive stereotypes was always her first priority.
The harsh realities that Morrison experienced foreshadow much of the content and many of the characters in her novels. As undergrad at Howard, she discovered separate sororities for light-skinned and dark-skinned women and learned of the bigotry prevalent within the black community.
Morrison tells of how her grandfather would brag about reading The Bible eight times from beginning to end and that she came to realize what an incredible feat that was, considering it was illegal for blacks to know how to read at that time. This would fuel her desire to write and shape her portrayal of characters who persevere amongst a society that tries to keep them marginalized.
Morrison talks about being marginalized herself, when she began to find her work published and how major literary critics dismissed her first books, with one being quoted as saying that the author was “far too talented” to focus only on “the black side of American life.”
As a filmmaker, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders gives the documentary a style that saves it from being just another talking head piece. The director puts to good use a collection of beautiful black art works that mesh with Morrison’s words in telling her story powerfully.
Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s main producers, has a personal connection to Morrison. Winfrey produced and starred in the feature film adaptation of the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel “Beloved.” Winfrey’s struggle to secure the rights (Morrison was unsure whether the book should, or could, be adapted to the big screen) is one subject that wasn’t given enough time, unfortunately. Even though reception to the film was mixed and it underperformed at the box office, it was too important a moment in both literary and cinematic history to only be given a couple of minutes of discussion.
Another strand of Morrison’s life story that I would’ve liked to learn more about was her two sons. We see photos and it is mentioned that her oldest son inspired her on a few occasions, but the boys are mostly left out of the film, even though I am sure that they likely played a huge part in Toni Morrison’s life.
The film and Morrison herself are intimate and candid while her stories are captivating, as we learn of the people and experiences and people that shaped some of her novels. Most importantly, Morrison has a marvelous sense of humor. She is proud of her accomplishments and the life she has led and, to this day, she has always kept her humor, and her smile beams the light of a woman contented who knows what is best in her life. For instance, the author speaks of how honored she was to win the Nobel Prize with equal pride as she is to talk up her recipe for carrot cake. Morrison claims hers is the unquestionable best.
Uprooted from the Jim Crow South to a childhood in Ohio to Howard to the white male-dominated literary world and on to literary success and the Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison has lived many lives and endured hardships that could defeat lesser-willed people. Yet she always endured and never allowed herself to be defeated. Without ego Morrison recognized that she was a vital author and knew she had a responsibility to her culture, and to the world at large, to share her honest portrayals of black life through her amazing and inventive grasp of language.
One of the best compliments is delivered courtesy of her good friend, Harvard’s David Carrasco, “She’s the Emancipation Proclamation of the English language!” For a writer who puts so much care into each word, I couldn’t think of a more apt description for Toni Morrison.