By Liam Lacey
There’s much to admire and mull over in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a documentary by her long-time friend, the portrait photographer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, built around a series of sit-down interviews with the Nobel Prize–winning author of popular and critical successes such as Beloved and Jazz.
Now in her late eighties, Morrison emanates intellectual clarity and regal good-humour as she discusses her life and her efforts to create a language to communicate historical American Black experience outside the “master narrative.” That means literature that, while not “personal” (“I don’t want to hear about your little life,” she told creative writing students at Princeton) is created without “the assumption that the reader is a white person.”
Her approach met predictable resistance. A 1973 New York Times reviewer of Morrison’s second novel, Sula, opined that “Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous reporter of the black side of provincial American life.”
Morrison began writing fiction, often before sunrise, as a single mother of two and full-time editor with Random House, promoting writers such as Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, and even Mohammed Ali. She also produced a best-selling scrapbook-style book, The Black Book, a montage of photographs, historic photographs and articles, historical commercials and ads, chronicling the historic Black experience.
The divide between black and white receptions for her work reached a crisis point in 1988, when 48 fellow writers and critics published an open letter in The New York Review of Books protesting her failure to win a national book prize, though two months later, she was given the Pulitzer for Beloved.
The collage-style of The Black Book informs Greenfield-Sanders documentary, which features extensive African-American visual art (Jacob Laurence’s Great Migration paintings from the 1940s; contemporary artist Kara Walker’s brutal plantation silhouettes, and Gordon Parks’ photographs of the segregation era).
Along with earlier TV interviews with Morrison (Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Dick Cavett), there is also a chorus of commentators, offering tributes to Morrison as a writer and person, including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Sonia Sanchez, and the refreshingly droll Walter Mosley.
The subjects can get a little repetitive in their enthusiastic praise (enough talk about her carrot cake, already) and even within its two-hour running time, the film glosses over subjects curious viewers might want explored: About her conversion to Catholicism at 12, the books she has written since 2001, her relationship to her adult sons, one now deceased, and some insight of the personal pain behind her warm public persona.
We can wonder what she meant when she told Terri Gross in 2015 that “ I remember everything as a mistake, and I regret everything,” a statement radically at odds with everything we see and hear in this film.
There are many other pieces to Toni Morrison to file under “for further reading” which lie outside the range of this affectionate documentary, offered as a tribute and celebration.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. With Opera Winfrey, Angela Davis and Walter Mosley. Opens July 5 in Toronto (at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema) and Vancouver; July 12 in Montreal, and throughout the summer in other cities.