In 1993, Toni Morrison accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature — a momentous occasion not just for the author, but also for the history of the award itself. Her power is just that great, as anyone who’s read her works — The Bluest Eye, Sula, Jazz and Beloved among them — can attest. But the real takeaway of the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is that even those who have never read a Toni Morrison book have been affected by her. We all have, and we’re all better because of it.
The Pieces I Am director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a celebrated photographer, and he brings a portraitist’s eye to his subject. At 88 years old, Morrison looks regal as she conveys stories from her life, looking straight into the camera. Major cultural figures including Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Angela Davis and Fran Lebowitz also provide commentary on the author’s life and work, spilling effusive praise for Morrison.
As for the author herself, she makes bold declarations about literature throughout the film, in beautifully constructed sentences. “I think history has always proved that books are the first plane on which certain kinds of battles are fought,” she says, along with, “Navigating a white male world was not threatening — it wasn’t even interesting.”
Readers of Morrison’s work will find much to love here, but writers should also take note: Consider this a master class in writing from one of the world’s greatest living novelists. Activist and fellow author Angela Davis tells stories of how Morrison guided her writing, asking questions about small details Davis was writing about, like what the air smelled like and what color a person’s dress was. Morrison herself relays advice she gave her students at Howard University, where she taught creative writing for years before she delved into writing novels. “Don’t write what you know — invent!”
Before Morrison began writing her own novels, she also worked as an editor for Random House in New York. She spent the early 1970s breaking ground as an important figure at the crux of the black power and women’s liberation movements. This is the most exciting point in the film, when archival footage of activists like Davis shows Morrison working from the sidelines. She brought black voices into the largely white institution of literary publishing, and counted Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton and Tony Cade Bambara among the writers she elevated. As Als suggests, Morrison played the roles of both architect and midwife to the black literary movement of the 1970s. And all of that was before she even published a word of her own fiction.
Alongside archival footage and interviews lit with portrait-photographer precision, masterpieces of contemporary art by African Americans help illustrate the breadth of Morrison’s influence among black creatives. With still shots of works by Rashid Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, The Pieces I Am could easily function as a kind of introductory African American art tutorial. Included among the pieces are the Aaron Douglas murals at Fisk University in Nashville, pieces that illustrate a particularly resonant segment. The opening credits feature collage work by Mickalene Thomas, who piles photographs of Morrison throughout the years on top of carefully deconstructed ephemera. It’s a hypnotic tribute.
Since childhood, says Morrison, she noticed a white reader’s presence in works by black authors. Of Frederick Douglass, Morrison says she always felt him holding back, of not telling the whole truth to his audience. Of Ralph Ellison, Morrison asks to whom his Invisible Man was invisible. The intended audience for black literature, she noticed, was still largely white. Morrison says she’s spent her entire writing life trying to make sure that white gaze was not dominant in any of her books.
The literary world has made great progress toward putting black voices and black readers at the center of their own narratives. That, the film asserts, is a direct result of Morrison’s influence.
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