Another day, another talking head documentary. But when one of the talking heads is the late, great Toni Morrison, one must sit up and pay attention.
Recording “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” shortly before her death last year at age 88, the author speaks in much the same way she wrote – with dignity, conviction and power. Her rhythmic cadence envelops you and gives great weight to even the smallest personal stories.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-spoken or genuinely likable documentary subject. And if the others interviewed- critics, professors, fellow writers- fall into the too-easy documentary trap of endless praise for their subject, that seems warranted for once. It is impossible to come away from “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” without an appreciation for what the author has done for the English language and those marginalized in American society – accomplishments that are unquestionably worth celebrating.
The largest part of the documentary’s focus naturally falls on Morrison’s novels like “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved” and how Morrison used those stories to bring black lives into the mainstream. Morrison was not the first black writer, but she notes that her predecessors – including greats like Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin- operated under the assumption that their audience was white and thus took their time explaining black culture.
Morrison, God bless her, refused to explain anything.
“I didn’t want to speak for black people,” Morrison says. “I wanted to speak to them and amongst them.”
This approach didn’t come without controversy. One New York Times review of an early novel praised Morrison’s writing, but longed for the day when she would use that talent to focus on a more “interesting and universal” subject than black people.
“Are you sick of being labeled a black writer?” an interviewer asks Morrison in archival footage.
“No, I’m sick of being asked the question,” Morrison responds.
If the film rightly focuses on Morrison’s contributions to the American canon, it also makes a point to celebrate her largely unseen contributions as well. As an editor at Random House, she helped give voice to other black writers who may not have been heard otherwise – from Gayl Jones and Angela Davis to Henry Dumas and Muhammad Ali. She also had a largely uncredited role compiling “The Black Book” – a seminal collection of photos, essays and illustrations chronicling African-American history.
Morrison was one of the hardest working women in literature for years – at one point, editing, writing, teaching and raising her two sons as a single mother. Her accomplishments were largely ignored by the literary establishment for years and, even when she won a Nobel Prize in 1993, that accomplishment was largely derided by her male white colleagues as a “political” move not based on Morrison’s merit.
When Morrison talks about these criticisms, she just smiles, as well she should. Her legacy is not in awards or the words of critics, but in her own words and the words of others that she helped the world hear.
“The Pieces I Am” (rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and thematic material) runs a bit long – well over two hours- but it’s hard to begrudge director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for being perhaps a bit too mesmerized and enamored by Morrison.
I can’t say I blame him. And considering that “The Pieces I Am” ended up being Morrison’s final showcase before her death, I’m glad that he took the time to envelop us in the poetry of her voice one last time.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.