Inspiring and intimate, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a revealing portrait of a true American icon. The Nobel Prize-winning author of seminal books including Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and The Black Book shares details of her life and work honestly and openly, while fellow luminaries — and enthusiastic fans — like Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, and many more wax rhapsodic about Morrison’s talent and significance as a writer.
The film covers the full breadth of Morrison’s life, from her childhood in Ohio — where she was always a passionate reader — to her time at Howard University to her boundary-breaking career in book editing in New York City and eventual shift to writing novels. As Morrison tells her own story, we see still images from her early years and hear from those who’ve known her for decades.
While she describes her integrated Ohio hometown as a happy place to grow up, Morrison also tells of hearing her father describe a lynching he witnessed as a young man in Georgia and shares other racist experiences that played a large role in developing her singular voice and focus as a writer. Her desire to share black stories with the world fueled her from early in her career — and ultimately earned her worldwide acclaim and recognition (not to mention great book sales).
One of the things Greenfield-Sanders does particularly well is convey Morrison’s seemingly unshakable confidence. She seems to have rarely doubted her own talent or ability to achieve her goals, and that assurance comes through in interview clips from the 1970s onward. As she says at one point, when she was a single parent and feeling overwhelmed about her list of life tasks, she sorted them into “want to do” and “have to do,” and the only other thing on the latter list besides mothering her children was “write.” The world will always be grateful that was the case. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: Toni Morrison is a great writer, full stop. She could almost be considered the creator of a genre of fiction, one that surveys with blazing originality and honesty the lives of African-American girls and women. Therefore, predictably, attempts to marginalize her, ignore her, change her, and ban her have dogged her from the moment her first novel, The Bluest Eye, debuted in 1970. Being the highly intelligent, imaginative, and socially committed person that she is, Morrison has triumphed over her detractors, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Now we are able to share a bit in her journey through Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a film that focuses brilliantly, and almost exclusively, on her working life and accomplishments. We are edified about how Morrison used the early morning hours to turn out her stellar debut novel with two young sons to raise and provide for, and how now the world always looks better to her at dawn. We learn how, as an editor for Random House, she was able to bring other African-American voices into the world. We see her fun-loving side and her clear-eyed compassion. The documentary is packed with talking-head admirers, but really, Morrison can tell her own story perfectly well without them, as she has for 50 years. Watch Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and find out what a life well lived looks like.
Pam Grady: Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders produces a parade of witnesses to attest to Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s artistry and importance to American culture, including her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, New Yorker critic Hilton Als, activist Angela Davis, fellow novelist Russell Banks, and Oprah Winfrey. But the most powerful viewpoint in this encompassing and involving documentary belongs to Morrison herself. As she approaches her 90th birthday, her voice is commanding as ever as she relates the many worlds she has inhabited in creative and fruitful life. Rarely has a title fit a film so perfectly, but it is perfectly reflective of the quilt-like mosaic that emerges from the rich fabric of Morrison’s many lives: daughter, wife, single mother, professor, editor, and finally writer. Morrison has been a consummate storyteller of other lives. It turns out that her own life is as compelling as those of her indelible characters.
Leslie Combemale In the interest of full disclosure, I must say Toni Morrison is my favorite writer, and I’ve read her work since I was 10 years old, although I recognize The Bluest Eye was a bit beyond my understanding at that age. Though I know a fair amount about her life and work, in watching the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, I learned a great deal more, and enjoyed every minute of doing so. The film examines her life in such a way as to engage both longtime fans, and those new to her genius. There’s something for lovers of literature and the history of publishing. It is also for those who yearn to know more about the place in the world she helped carve out for people of color craving to see themselves with a view unobstructed by the white gaze. Through vintage film clips and interviews with Morrison herself, as well as colleagues and those influenced by her work, the film exposes the many ways in which she has reflected humanity, with all its tragedy and joy. Morrison, too, is revealed as the compassionate, quirky, carrot-cake-making flesh and blood woman she is. Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a wonderful profile of an exceptional and very important American writer.
MaryAnn Johanson I think the thing I love best about this marvelous portrait of Toni Morrison is how happy she seems, with what joy she seems to appreciate her own work and her own success. (As well she should, of course.) She talks about one of her own characters here, describing herself as a woman who knows herself, and that seems to apply to Morrison as well. I love her total lack of modesty, like when she responds (in an old news clip), when asked about why her work is so well received, that she’s just a really great writer. She has so much to teach us about embracing our talents and being confident enough to accept accolades, even if they are nowhere near as prestigious as hers.
Marina Antunes It would be easy to slot Toni Morrison into a box of “award-winning author” but the truth about Morrison and her work is much deeper and far more important than that. At a time when women were fighting to be seen as equals, Morrison, a black woman, did not only step-up but she excelled, along the way raising the voices of an entire race, culture, sex, and shining a light on a history that was largely forgotten or purposefully overlooked. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am provides a lovely and often candid portrait of one of the world’s greatest writers, in her own voice and as she is seen by her peers, contemporaries and even detractors.
Sheila Roberts 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. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a comprehensive, intimate and utterly inspiring biodoc about the legendary author, her work and her cultural impact. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ superb cinematic profile is created through on camera appearances of Toni Morrison’s peers — Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis, among the, but the herstory told best and boldest by the utterly inspiring Morrison who appears on camera — up close and personal — throughout.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “American Masters” documentary about Toni Morrison features the Nobel Prize-winning legend front and center, and what a marvel she is on camera. The octogenarian (she’s now 88) is luminous, humorous, confident and a gifted oral storyteller (in addition to being one of the greatest living authors). The documentary features a host of literati and Morrison friends, from her longtime bestie Fran Lebowitz (who highly recommends we all have a friend win the Nobel, because the Swedes know how to throw parties) to critic Hilton Als (who believes her the godmother of all contemporary black authors) to iconic author and activist Angela Davis (whose autobiography Morrison mentored and edited at Random House). Looking back at the reviews for Morrison’s pre-Nobel work, it’s easy to see how coded many were with racist and sexist language, because she threatened the very white, very male literary canon. A generation later it’s clear that Morrison’s name will endure for the ages, proving that books about and for African Americans are just as universal and transformative as the millennia of works by and for white readers.
Cate Marquis Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary Toni Morrison:The Pieces I Am is a comprehensive look at the life and work of a true American treasure, a giant of literature and culture. Morrison is certainly a worthy documentary subject: the author of such works as Sula, Beloved and The Bluest Eye, she’s the recipient of a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer, the American Book Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other honors. Her works speak particularly to the black experience and women’s experience, but are still universal. A ground-breaker not only in her own writing, she opened the door to other black and women writers as an editor at Random House. This documentary is packed with archival footage and stills, interviews with notable figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Angela Davis, and commentary from numerous scholars and others, discussing the impact of Morrison’s work. But this documentary has another element that many fine documentaries about great figures lack: the living author herself. Interviews with Toni Morrison and archival footage from throughout her life are part of the fabric of the film.
She speaks about her work, her life, and her views on various topics. Hearing Morrison’s commentary in her own voice gives this excellent film a singular insight into this author. It is a unique aspect that makes this documentary a must-see for everyone.
Title: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Directors: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Running Time: 119 minutes
Distribution Company: Magnolia Picures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin