Early in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Morrison tells a story from her childhood about when she first came to understand the power of the written word. She and her sister learned to read and write partly by copying the words that they saw in chalk, on the pavement. One day they copied a word seen on a wall: “F…U…C…” Before they got to the last letter, their horrified mother rushed to make them clean it off, lest anyone else see. This story establishes the singular voice and presence of Morrison, forming the structural spine of the film: warm and humorous, a combination of erudition and down-home wit and charm Morrison is a compelling storyteller, both in person and in print. This Nobel prizewinner’s place in the world literature canon is now virtually unquestioned, but this film reminds us that it wasn’t always so, highlighting some early, condescending reviews that lamented the “narrowness” of centering the lives of black people in her work and challenging the primacy of the white gaze.
The focus is mostly on Morrison’s seminal early novels – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon – as well as Beloved, her most celebrated work. Interspersed between scenes of Morrison’s direct address to camera – reflecting Greenfield-Sanders’s background in portrait photography – are scenes of commentary from colleagues and admirers (such as Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, and editor Robert Gottlieb) — as well as archival material, which puts all the spoken words in context. Besides being a groundbreaking novelist, Morrison nurtured and shepherded other black authorial voices as an editor at Random House, beginning in the 1970s — all achievements that are appropriately celebrated here. The greatest value of this informative and impressively crafted documentary, then, is as a catalyst for viewers’ discovery (or rediscovery) of Morrison’s brilliant work, as well as the enduring importance of great, challenging literature, despite the dominance of our largely screen-based media landscape.
Published as part of June 2019’s Before We Vanish.