Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is more than just an intimate documentary profile of the Nobel Prize-winning author. The film connects the literary dots in Morrison’s nearly-50-year career as a remarkably perceptive voice for African-American freedom — but it’s Morrison’s penetrating, unwavering campaign to define her Blackness, in a social context as well as through her influential fictions, that places her in the forefront of this country’s discussion of race. That discussion is a national imperative and so is Morrison’s work, for anyone who wants to understand the American experience in all its shameful yet hopeful complexity.
Documentarian and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who has focused on everyone from Melvin Van Peebles to Deepak Chopra to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Whoopi Goldberg to Lou Reed for his “List” series of docs, hears about Morrison and her times from the woman herself — alongside such talking heads as political activist Angela Davis, novelist Walter Mosley, literature professor Farrah Jasmine Griffin, actor Hilton Als, writer and confidante Fran Lebowitz, and Morrison’s most conspicuous fan, Oprah Winfrey.
Naturally, it’s the author’s own words that resonate most powerfully. Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio as Chloe Wofford, daughter of a steel mill worker and a domestic, she realized the power of words early on. For Morrison, education was a revolutionary act toward Black liberation, and her novels personalized the same ideals and aspirations she recognized in other African-American writers. With a difference. “I didn’t want to speak for Black people, but to them,” she declares. The debate allowed for no “white judgmental eye.” Morrison sees herself as a “racialized” writer with the gift of telling the same story as the polemicists she admired, from an intensely personal point of view.
Amid the controversy around her debut novel The Bluest Eye — “her rawest,” in Mosley’s opinion — Morrison was criticized for “narrowness” by mainstream critics (too provincial, too Black, etc.) and blamed for not writing about white-Black issues, usually by white reviewers. “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” she notes, and it troubled her. Lit prof Griffin characterizes Morrison by her refusal to be defined by what her oppressor thinks of her (“I have never been praying for blue eyes”) and by her lifelong resistance to the “master narrative” of the white male perspective.
From the beginning, you either got Toni Morrison or you didn’t. She admonished her Howard University students: Don’t write about your little life. Don’t “write what you know,” because you don’t know anything. “I want you to invent” stories about everyday people, especially women of color, because they’re ignored by the white canon. Her books Song of Solomon, The Black Book, and the slave story Beloved trilogy (Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise) set the intellectual world on fire in a way that Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Ralph Ellison couldn’t, because she was a woman.
“Racism,” says Morrison, “is a reflection of something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption, and a distortion. It’s a profound neurosis that no one examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy. It has just as deleterious an effect on white people as it does on Black people.” Read your Morrison, and see this movie.