Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am–Docu of Famous Novelist

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the director of the significant docu, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, was the writer’s friend before she won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature; she had also appeared in his 2008 non-fiction, The Black List.

In this non-fictional film, Morrison, who’s 88 (born February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio) deservedly occupies center stage, though she comes across as humble if self-assured, bright but not trying to be overly smart or witty,  protective of her private life, setting limits to what she wants to reveal (and what she doesn’t).

The film begins with a title sequence by Mickalene Thomas of collage-like images of Morrison’s face at different phases of her life, thus justifying the feature’s subtitle (“The Pieces I Am”).

Rather conventional in structure and style, the feature consists of lengthy, in-depth interviews with the subject, her friends, influential media and theater figures, literary critics.  Morrison narrates her own life in a confident, but not overly personal (or emotional) way, assisted along the way by family photos, newspaper clippings and reviews, books and their jacket covers.

Those who had read the works of this famous and accomplished writer will not find much new material in this film, which world premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Fest. However, younger viewers (high school and college students) unfamiliar with her writing or public persona will find this Masterpiece Theater-like feature informative and occasionally insightful too.

Morrison began as a divorced mother of two sons, raising them alone, while writing fiction early in the morning and being gainfully employed as a book editor.  At Random House, she tried–and often succeeded–to elevate the profile of unknown black writers who depicted characters and lives seldom appearing in more dominant or mainstream fiction. Angela Davis, for example, recalls Morrison’s initiative in contacting her about doing her own memoir.

From her early life, she realized the “lasting power” of novels, the emotional resonance of words, the politics of languages, which go beyond their effective usefulness as merely communication tools.

It was Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul and public opinion leader, which exposed generations of TV viewers to Morrison’s work (“The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon”) through her innovative creation, “Oprah’s Book Club,” especially in its first decade.  Winfrey was also a producer of a big-screen version of Beloved, which sadly was a critical and commercial flop.

Morrison says she wished to exclude the white gaze from her books. She never set out to represent or to explain “the black experience,” which is an impossible task, but to speak from within that culture, to capture rather than reflect the unique qualities of black voices and words.

Like other artists, she is ambivalent towards literary critics, especially influential ones, like the New York Times.  Also like other authors, she tries to separate between her inner and outer selves, and to compartmentalize her private and public lives.

 

Interviewees:

Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez

 

About Morrison’s Achievements
Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved (published 1987). The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

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