The documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is much like the person it attempts to capture: warm, thoughtful, eloquent, resonant. It weaves together the life and work of the much revered and studied author, who became the first black woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for Beloved.
At the time, the Swedish Academy (which awards the prize) said this of Morrison’s work: “She delves into language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry.”
That same sentiment is often echoed in the documentary, which interviews not only Morrison herself, but other notable writers, critics, peers and academics. Among them are Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and Oprah Winfrey. (The latter produced and starred in a film adaption of Beloved.) Morrison's novels unravel in black America, the first being 1970's The Bluest Eye.
“I don’t want to speak for black people,” she explains in the documentary. “I wanted to speak to and be among black people. The first thing I had to do was eliminate the white gaze.”
It’s that same white gaze that critics often imposed on her work. Referring to Sula, one New York Times reviewer wrote in 1973 that Morrison “is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”
That misguided thought process kept Morrison from being rightfully recognized in a sociopolitical landscape consumed largely by white men.
“The assumption is that the reader is a white person. That troubled me," Morrison said to talk show host Charlie Rose (pre-sexual harassment allegations) in a clip featured in the documentary.
Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders finds strength in simplistic execution — relying mainly on straightforward interviews — as the film guides us from Morrison's childhood in working-class Lorain, Ohio where she was born in 1931 to attending Howard University in 1949; it was there that, as recalled in the documentary, she first encountered racial segregation in restaurants and buses. Later, she would go on to earn her masters from Cornell University. She taught for several years, married, had kids and divorced before working as an editor for L.W. Singer and two years later became Random House’s first black woman senior editor. In that role, she helped bring forward a slew of other influential black voices: Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Muhammad Ali.
But the documentary also narrows, revealing small details about Morrison, like how she would wake up at 5 a.m. — a habit she first began when her children were young — and sit at the end of her home's dock to write. It’s early in the morning that she says her mind is at its most creative.
Greenfield-Sanders and Morrison have known each other since 1981, when she came to his studio to be photographed for the promotion of her fourth novel, Tar Baby. Their friendship — though he remains behind the camera for the film’s duration — is evidenced by the effortlessness in which she shares her life. With Morrison positioned front and center in interviews, this trust translates to the viewer.
Though at times the music distracts and the myriad of voices interviewed feels crowded, the lasting effect of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am feels like reminiscing with an old friend. To capture the life of a renowned author whose body of work has transformed contemporary literature, and in effect, society, is no easy feat. But The Pieces I Am does so with grace. And, certainly, Morrison is incredibly deserving of such admiration.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will open locally at the Mariemont Theatre Aug. 2; showtimes can also be found at Dayton, Ohio's The Neon.