Timothy Greenfield-Sanders inspiring biodoc, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, celebrates the life, career, and potent themes of a literary icon through intimate interviews with the artist herself and an array of distinguished scholars, writers, peers, critics and colleagues. They include Columbia University Professor Farah Griffin, Harvard University Professor David Carrasco, The New Yorker Staff Writer and Theater Critic Hilton Als, American authors Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz and Angela Davis, Morrison’s long-time editor Robert Gottlieb, poet Sonia Sanchez, and media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey produced and starred in the film, Beloved, based on one of Morrison’s greatest novels and chose four of her books for her Book Club because she wanted the world to understand the importance of her work. Their collective and in-depth observations are fascinating.
Morrison, who has always loved books, learned from her grandfather at an early age that reading was a revolutionary act because it was illegal in his era for African Americans to learn how to read. She never forgot that. As an English major at Howard University in her 20’s, a teacher throughout her life, and a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University now in her late 80’s, she has always known that words have power. She has spent her writing career challenging the perspective that you are only defined by what your oppressor thinks of you. Morrison explains that she didn’t want to speak for black people, but rather to speak to and be among them. Eliminating the white gaze, which she describes as “this white judgmental eye checking me, editing me and approving of me,” enabled her to write about anything, to anyone, for anyone.
Greenfield-Sanders’ artful storytelling reveals how Morrison has a profound understanding of American history which she uses as a tool, drawing from biography, newspaper clippings, and whatever material she finds in the zeitgeist to inspire her writing. Then, she transforms it into literary art. Throughout her career, she has resisted what she calls the master narrative – the notion of an ideological script being imposed by people in authority – whether it’s family, school, media, or anything else.
The documentary shows how Morrison, in her capacity as an editor early in her career, nurtured promising voices that would have otherwise been ignored or marginalized by what until then had been a largely white institution. They included Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis. Morrison explains that her strategy was to ask herself, “What can you do where you are?” She saw it as her job to foster this generation of African American writers and to publish their voices, books and ideas because she felt their place in America was varied, complex, beautiful and impactful. Her ability to expand the literary landscape in this manner is one of her most valuable contributions to American publishing.
Throughout her career, Morrison has always written with a distinctive voice, seeking to tell stories that affect people profoundly and transform their lives. As Carrasco points out, readers discover in her work and words a new language about themselves and the conditions they live in, and that discovery gives them a sense of transcendence. In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, she explores the interior pain of racism so deep that an 11-year-old believes, if only she had some characteristic of the white world, she would be alright. That powerful theme of reaching into and exploring the depths of pain, how it can be used to transform us, and how through it we can come to love is confronted in all her subsequent work.
What makes Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am such an engaging documentary is the masterful way in which Greenfield-Sanders navigates the acclaimed novelist’s life and career while weaving relevant and insightful interviews into the proceedings at the most impactful moments. We are given considerable access to Morrison, who seems to relish the process, which in turn affords us an unusually intimate look at her complex life and times.