Toni Morrison learned the power of words before she understood how to write and combine them in sentences. With an understanding of that power and the intention to reflect an underrepresented perspective within fiction, she would later successfully set about changing the landscape of American literature. With “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders gives curious minds a first-person peek inside her creative genius.
The film premiered at Sundance this winter and will open in theaters nationwide on July 12.
An outspoken voice that expresses her love and dedication to black life and reflecting the black experience through her work, the film provides a full spectrum of Morrison’s own life: Her early days growing up in Ohio; her blossoming as a writer by finding her voice in the drama department of Howard University; her work as an educator; and the serendipitous manner in which she landed the position that made provisions for her to develop as a writer – and guide to some of the most endeared figures in black culture to finding their own voices through her work as an editor – are touched upon.
Interviews with Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb weave together the film along with past and present footage of Morrison.
She was nearly 40 and established in her career managing an editorial department at Random House when she decided that she needed to give African-American readers literature created with them in mind. “The Bluest Eye” was her introduction. Her work would go on to garner Morrison a Pulitzer Prize, an American Book Award, a Nobel Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
For five decades, mainstream literature leaned on Morrison to provide authenticity, passion and hard truths regarding race and the African American experience. She has continued writing well into her 80s – with her most recent work being 2015’s “God Help the Child.”
In the film, Morrison discusses how she writes for herself – the black reader. Her intimate knowledge of her community and the desire to express the fullness and richness that lies within the challenges and trauma of being an oppressed and suppressed people are the first order of business. What has set her apart from other black authors has been the complete absence of any special care or framing to lend additional understanding to anyone other than the black reader.
She points this out herself in the documentary, particularly with a reference to Ralph Waldo Ellison’s literary classic “Invisible Man.”
“Invisible to who?” Morrison said in response to the title – while pointing out the tendency of other writers to work as a tour guides through the black experience by writing with a white reader in mind.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” brings a human connection to a woman who has been deified because of her work since soon after her 1970 literary debut.
Outspoken about her race and representing black people through her writing, the woman behind the work isn’t usually the topic of conversation when Morrison gives interviews.
However, in “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” the brilliant mind that brought the world “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye” is given the platform to brag about her carrot cake recipe and discuss the challenges of being a single parent while simultaneously working as an author and an editor.
The film gets convoluted at points with the continual back and forth between past and present footage. The film culminates with Morrison’s history making honor for her contributions to her field – but because the milestone happens 25 years from now, it feels as if there are chapters missing.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” doesn’t delve too deeply into its subject’s creative process, but perhaps Greenfield-Sanders was more intent on presenting the woman behind the work.
Through her writing, Morrison continues to prove not only the power of words – but also illustrates how giving words to a people transfers that power through representation.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 12. The film is rated PG-13 with a running time of 119 minutes.