Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
by Hope Madden
Before Toni Morrison was old enough to understand the F-word her mother had her washing off the sidewalk, she understood the confrontational nature and the power of words.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am benefits from the Octogenarian Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner’s characteristically mesmerizing ruminations on her life. As she sits and recounts memories, moments and, most fascinating, glimpses of her writing inspirations, the documentary blossoms.
Compared to the composed and thoughtful interview footage with the likes of Dick Cavett and others from across her career, Morrison’s interaction for Greenfield-Sanders’s camera has a playful quality.
She charms when recounting her personal history: “When I got to Howard, I was loose,” she recalls happily. “I probably overdid it. I don’t regret it.”
Her confidence when considering her life in publishing is awesome. “Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn’t even interesting.”
And when she speaks about her writing—just, wow: “My sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book. The white world was peripheral if it existed at all.”
It comes as no surprise that someone with such breathtaking mastery of the language would be as beguiling when speaking as she is in writing, and the veteran documentarian knows when to just turn the camera toward his subject and let it roll.
Sure, some context has to be provided. We get biographical information. We see snippets of news shows, hear from famous fans (Oprah, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Moseley—Toni Morrison has impressive fans). But honestly, this is when Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary gets away from him.
Allowing the audience some background they may not have concerning Morrison’s struggle to be appreciated in her own time, or the bold and culturally imperative choices she made as an editor, or the global reaction to her novels feels necessary. It also feels superficial.
Worse still, it feels like a cheat—like these were moments that could have been spent listening to Toni Morrison tell us something. Anything. This is particularly stinging when we’re finally allowed a sentence or two about how Beloved was inspired. Morrison tells of a vision that suggests there is something genuinely magical, something otherworldly, about her process.
It’s a hint, but it’s impossible not to want more, not to feel as though we could have chucked all that gushing from fans, all those archival interviews, all those photos from Howard and just listen to Toni Morrison tell us a story.