‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ review: moving portrait of a literary icon is a timely reminder of the power of the pen

Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis and more explore the life of a cultural giant

“Words are powerful,” concludes Toni Morrison while recounting a childhood story early on in the illuminating new documentary The Pieces I Am. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – who died in August 2019 – is recalling a time when she and her sister tried to chalk out the word ‘fuck’ on the pavement outside their house, but their furious mother caught them in the act. Morrison asserts down the barrel of the camera that it was then that she truly understood the potency of the pen.

This is just one of a handful of evocative anecdotes recalled beautifully by the late author in director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ piecemeal film about her life and career. But Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is by no means a comprehensive account of everything the late American novelist had written or achieved. Rather, it presents itself as a broad brush celebration of her earlier selected works from The Bluest Eye (1970) to Beloved (1987) – replete, too, with cuttings from negative reviews – and spliced with stunning portrait-style interviews with Morrison herself. Framing her thoughts and stories are separate conversations with her literary pals and associates (Russell Banks, Angela Davis and more), which are notably filmed off-centre so they don’t detract from the film’s shining star.

Elsewhere, Greenfield-Sanders (the esteemed portrait photographer whom Morrison entrusted to capture her over her career) breaks up these interviews with B-roll that varies from the domestic to the artistic. Stills of paintings by contemporary African-American artists; scratched tape-effect imagery of suburban life in Lorain, Ohio where Morrison grew up, and archive TV interviews colour the narrative, though their impact lands with mixed results.

Lifted by composer Kathryn Bostic’s inquisitive, jazzy score, the documentary works best when it allows Morrison to talk about blackness and African American history. In particular, a deeper level of understanding of her craft arrives when she insists that it was always her aim to write novels that spoke directly to black people, not for them. Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass were black writers that “didn’t talk to me” she says. None did, in fact. She shrugs off literary critics who said her novels were too focused on the experiences of black people. “I was trying to make sure the white gaze wasn’t the dominant one in my books,” she explains, reasoning that it had never before been absent.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ in 1981. Credit: Alamy

Gushing declarations of love from Oprah Winfrey, who remarks that Morrison’s power lies in her “teaching us all the time” about the human condition and “how to love through pain”, make for some of the film’s most gut-punching moments; Winfrey is of course well-versed in the art of being affecting on camera. As too is the section in which poet Sonia Sanchez is visibly moved while describing how special Morrison was.

While some of the fleeting cuts to uncontextualised artwork feel superfluous and distracting in an otherwise immersive watch, there’s an obvious constriction in making a film about a writer and these choices are understandable, if not a little clumsy. That said, The Pieces I Am gives viewers the chance to at last learn more about the author who painted her characters so vividly, and who is so vividly painted here.

Details

  • Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
  • Starring: Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey
  • Release date: March 6
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