“She’s teaching us all the time,” Oprah Winfrey says of Toni Morrison‘s writing in the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. “There is not a sentence that is not filled with depth of meaning and knowledge and information.” Morrison’s pedagogical instinct is one of her many gifts as a writer, and it is on full display in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders‘ film. A former professor, Morrison derives and shares myriad insights and lessons from her life experiences.
The Pieces I Am is organized interestingly enough, weaving in and out of the Beloved author’s history, life, and works. Each aspect of focus is expertly complemented by immersive archival images and footage, lending the film — like Morrison’s prose — an enveloping quality. The film’s energy is a bit too low, and the overall structure is not nearly as creative or radical as its subject, but The Pieces I Am‘s reverent and intimate tone works well for its mission: the canonization of a literary saint.
Morrison has one of the most beautiful manners of speech I have ever heard; luckily, she narrates the bulk of the documentary in her rich, lilting voice. From this narration, we get to know the person behind the icon. Her birth name, we learn, is Chloe. She makes the best carrot cakes in the world. During her time at Howard University, she did drama, joined a sorority, and was admittedly (but not regrettably) “loose.” She rises before the sun in order to write, a habit she formed while raising her two sons. Her grandfather, whose story opens the film, was a sharecropper; in his lifetime, it was illegal to read. This solidified reading and writing as confrontational and radical acts for young Morrison.
As we glide through Morrison’s life — her college years, her career as an editor, her ultimate success as a writer — we also deeply explore her work. With the help of insightful talking heads, Angela Davis and Hilton Als among them, any viewer unfamiliar with Morrison’s oeuvre can come away from the film having learned a tremendous amount. What Davis and Als praise most in Morrison’s work is her discrediting of the white male gaze; the “white world,” Als remarks, “is peripheral.” This literary approach was unprecedented at the time Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970.
Pushing beyond the scope of basic hagiography, The Pieces I Am offers incisive analysis via talking heads about why and how Morrison is such a singular author. Her books were some of the first to place women and female friends at the center of epic narratives. Her body of work spans four centuries and explores the nuances of black life as had never been done before. Her novels have been banned in several schools, and one was banned in a Texas prison out of fear it would incite a riot.
Her lesser-known contributions to American publishing as an editor are equally revolutionary, which the film smartly sheds light on. Her trailblazing leaves much to be learned for the modern publishing industry. In her position as an editorial gatekeeper, Morrison ushered new and diverse voices into the largely white institution of publishing. In a particularly gripping interview, Davis describes Toni’s editing process: “She helped me access my imagination in ways that I continue to be thankful for today.” Indeed, Morrison’s accomplishments as an editor have been largely hidden from public knowledge — a surefire sign that she was very good at her job.
The film captures the contemporary response to Morrison, as well as its evolution, very lucidly. In the early years of her writing career, many critics criticized Morrison for excluding the white perspective in her novels. What countless readers would soon come to love about Morrison was that she was, in fact, unafraid to be black. “I didn’t want to speak for black people,” she tells us, with a sage’s delivery. “I wanted to speak to and be among black people.”
By 1993, she would win the Nobel Prize. On the day she learned that she had received the award, a reporter asked Morrison what she thinks sets her apart as a writer. Her answer brought me to tears: “I think I write well. And I think I have a distinctive voice.” Morrison did not ask permission to be good or to know she was good; The Pieces I Am embraces and showcases that strength of character wholeheartedly. In one-on-one interviews, Greenfield-Sanders gives Morrison ample space to be her toughest, gentlest, and wisest selves at once. When she speaks, it often feels like a moment of divine revelation.
The most rewarding takeaway of The Pieces I Am (besides Morrison’s genius) is the sheer power of the written word. Early in the film, Morrison recalls a memory from her childhood when she and her sister were first learning to spell by copying words down with pebbles on the pavement. Down the road they saw a word scrawled out on a wall; they decided to copy it down. As they began to spell it out — F… U…C — their mother raced out of the house, hysterical, demanding they scrub the pavement. Her mother’s violent reaction impressed upon Morrison that “words have power.” “If words can do that to my mother…,” she says, then what could they do to a community? A nation? The world? Morrison’s own story, as documented and honored in The Pieces I Am, gives us a glimpse of those possibilities.