You know you’ve made it when Oprah Winfrey descends from Mount Goddess to sit down and gush over you in a documentary. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison deserves every word of praise. And there is plenty to go around in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
The story of Morrison’s life and career carries the dramatic heft of a superhero origin story. As a child, Morrison and her sister learned a new four-letter word and began scribbling it on the sidewalk. They scrawled the F and the U before their mother scrambled out the door to stop them. It was at that moment that Morrison knew words have power.
My favourite part of this doc is learning how a teenage Morrison levelled-up her writing abilities. She obsessed over language and spent all her time in the library scouring over books. She examined writers’ word choices, broke down turns of phrase, and looked for alternative ways of saying the same thing. As a young writer she was like a teenage LeBron breaking down video of Kobe’s footwork and Jordan’s jump shot. In my mind, I hear Rocky’s theme music blasting as a young Morrison sits in a dark library surrounded by stacks of dusty books.
By the time Morrison began writing her first novel, she was a divorced single mother of two, working a full-time job. She started her day before sunrise because that’s the only time she had to write. She would then break from working on her eventual masterpiece (The Bluest Eye) to go to her day job as an editor at Random House.
It was at Random House where she made her contribution to the black empowerment movement. Rather than protesting in the streets, Morrison gave voice to black activists like Angela Davis. Morrison reached out to Davis about writing an autobiography before Davis knew she had one in her – Davis was 28 at the time.
Aside from Mickalene Thomas’s beautiful opening title sequence, The Pieces I Am is a bare-bones talking head doc that lacks flair. It’s mostly comprised of Morrison sitting before a grey background recounting each stage of her life and career. That’s not a shot at the film. Morrison is one of the world’s greatest storytellers, and I hung on her every word.
Greenfield-Sanders interviews artists, culture critics, and friends who discuss the cultural impact of Morrison’s work and how it affects them. They’re all engaging subjects who can’t hide their passion for Morrison’s work. Sidenote: A filmmaker can do no wrong when Fran Lebowitz shows up as an interview subject.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Morrison and her career the interview subjects do an exceptional job putting it all into perspective. And there are plenty of personal anecdotes that humanize her as well. Early in the film, we learn that certain circles revere Morrison more for her carrot cake than her writing. It’s these little touches that flesh out Toni Morrison as both a writer and a down-to-earth woman.
What makes Morrison’s books powerful is the way she anchors her stories in a uniquely African American experience. She doesn’t pander to her audience, particularly white readers. Her books don’t assume that the white male gaze is literature’s default setting. She highlights black characters and explores relationships that go ignored in white literature. Morrison gives a voice to the voiceless and empowered generations of readers who felt unseen. And Morrison caught flack for it, of course.
A New York Times review called Morrison, “Too good a writer to restrict herself to the provincial world of black characters.” You haven’t made it as a black artist in America if someone doesn’t try and diminish your success. So, Morrison can wear the New York Times’ condescending praise as a badge of honour. She can hang it up next to her Nobel Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a superhero origin story of the highest order. It’s the inspiring tale of an irrepressible talent and a call for artists to be their most authentic selves.