No one can question Toni Morrison’s status as a literary giant. With a battering ram, she opened the doors of American literature to a whole new way of looking at this country’s culture, its violent history and its sense of nation. By exploring the legacy of slavery and oppression on African-American women and writing her novels from their point of view, she defied the literary establishment’s belief that African-American authors should write with a white audience in mind. As an editor, she introduced a whole new generation of African-American authors and was instrumental in convincing Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali to write and publish their autobiographies. Morrison is a mercurial figure even though in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ new documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, she comes across as the kind of genial and funny person you want to spend a whole afternoon with, sitting on a porch, glass of wine in one hand, talking about anything.
Produced as part of PBS’ American Masters series and released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rightfully hagiographic. But this is more than a celebration of an acclaimed, award-winning, ground-breaking and controversial writer; it is also a celebration of the written and spoken word, of the power of literature, and its influence on the imagination…especially the imagination of one African-American girl growing up in the melting pot city of Lorrain, Ohio who, while writing with her sister the letters “f” and “u” on the sidewalk, was scolded by her Mom and who, after high school, went to college so she could pursue her true passion: reading. Structurally, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am reminded me of Abner Benaim’s recent documentary Rubén Blades Is Not My Name, about the trailblazing Panamanian singer-songwriter, actor and politician. Both documentaries defy the strictly linear structure of the traditional biographical film, opting for a more essay-like approach focused on each artist’s key works and sprinkled with the testimonies from friends, colleagues and admirers. But while Benaim’s camera follows Ruben down the streets of his native Panama to the streets of and his house in New York (where, for the first time, he lets a stranger into his sanctum, a room full of memorabilia where he seeks solace and quiet), in Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary, Morrison addresses the camera directly: she is talking to us, directly. The camera occasionally shows us glimpses of her at home, but how she lives or where is of no concern to us or the story being told. Greenfield-Sanders steps out of the way; he’s far more interested in creating an intimate, unfiltered relationship between Morrison and her audience.
Morrison recalls how her grandfather read the Bible more than five times at a time when it was illegal for black people to read and how he and his family packed their bags and moved to Lorain, Ohio as part of the Great Migration; she speaks about making ends meet as a single mother of two working as a college professor and later as an editor and writer, developing a habit of waking up before sunrise to get some writing done; about how she demanded a raise equivalent to her male colleagues at her publishing house because she was “Head. Of. Household” (just picture her pausing and emphasizing each word). She also talks about the condescension she faced in the publishing industry: after Sula, her second novel, came out, a New York Times book reviewer found her focus on black people “too narrow.” She also recalls with great joy winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, most importantly, she talks in great detail about her first five books: The Bluest Eye, the afore-mentioned Sula, Song of Solomon Beloved and The Black Book, a compilation of clippings, documents and other ephemera about African-American life.
Greenfield-Sanders weaves into these on-camera reminiscences footage of the writer sparring with such TV personalities as Dick Cavett, Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose (watching Morrison put Rose in his place a real treat given is fall from grace after he was accused of sexual harrasment), as well as images of book jackets, newspaper clippings, family photographs and artwork by such contemporary African-American artists as Kara Walker and Rashid Johnson. Friends and writers such as Oprah Winfrey (who featured several of Morrison’s novels in her book club and produced and starred in the film adaptation of Beloved), author Walter Mosley, poet Sonia Sanchez (whose incantatory declarations are as much a delight to listen to as Morrison’s sly reflections) and her editor Robert Gottlieb, among others, provide context and highlight some of the events that were key in her career, such as the time 48 African-American writers signed an op-ed letter to the New York Times questioning why Morrison has not yet received a National Book Award. The highest praise, however, comes from Mexican-American scholar and Harvard professor David Carrasco who, on describing how during an appearance in Mexico City the public requested Morrison speak only in English, describes Morrison as “the Emancipation Proclamation of the English Language.”
Some might find it ironic that Morrison agreed to have a white director tell her story regardless of the long friendship between them. But by surrounding himself with African-American artists in front and behind the camera (including Afro-Latina interviewer Sandra Guzmán), Greenfield-Sanders guarantees that his white gaze doesn’t get in the way. For, make no mistake about it, this IS Morrison’s story, told in her own terms and that of her friends, even when editorial decisions were made about what to keep in and leave out (including an interview with theater director Peter Sellars). And that story has a distinctive swing, for whenever Morrison, Sanchez, Davis, Morley or Carrasco speak on camera, their words have the cadences of a jazz solo. Their words sing to us as Morrison’s does on the pages.
If anything, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am leaves you wanting more, just like Benaim’s Ruben Blades Is Not My Name does. In the same way I wished Benaim had explored in depth Ruben’s additional contributions to Latino culture —for example, his participation in Paul Simon’s and Derek Walcott’s precedent setting musical The Capeman— I wish Greenfield-Sanders had spent some time exploring Morrison’s latter works (given how protective she is of her privacy, it should surprise no one that her son Slade’s death of pancreatic cancer is not touched upon in the documentary). But we still have her books and her comforting, saucy, matter-of-fact, take no prisoners voice to guide us as we read each one of them as well as this visual document of a life well lived and the transformative power of literature.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is playing at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. and the Renaissance Place Cinema, 1850 Second Street, in downtown Highland Park.