Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
"Longstanding fans will enjoy her extensive contributions, as considered and witty as ever." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Interviewed for this documentary in 2017, Toni Morrison describes two incidents that alerted her to the power of words. The first was her grandfather's constant rereading of the Bible, something she would only later understand in the full context of it having been illegal for African Americans to read when he was a child. The second was the appearance of an unfamiliar word scrawled on the pavement near her home, a word which her horrified mother refused to pronounce. If words could inspire such devotion and such strong emotion, she wanted them at her command.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' portrait of the celebrated author will make a fantastic introduction for those unfamiliar with her work whilst longstanding fans will enjoy her extensive contributions, as considered and witty as ever. As well as telling her story, exploring her passions and charting the development of her talent, he addresses the big question that has haunted her career: why did it take so long for her to be recognised with the prestigious awards she so clearly deserved? Whilst there's an obvious answer to this, teasing out the subtleties of racial bias, especially in communities where most people don't imagine themselves as being affected by it, can be a difficult process.

Greenfield-Sanders facilitates this process by looking at the some of the earliest criticism of Morrison's work after she came to public notice. Most viewers should be able to identify the bias in accumulated comments to the effect that the author would be worth taking seriously if only she wrote more about white people (like an early, pseudo-intellectual take on All Lives Matter). Later, treading lightly so that his approach is not too obvious, he reflects on the history of slavery before looking at the way she was accused of exaggeration in Beloved, her most controversial work - an accusation thrown at most minority writers when, if anything, they have learned to downplay the ugliness of reality in order to get read at all.

Key to Morrison's importance as a writer, of course, is that she never bought into that kind of cultivated apologism, never made allowances for the sensibilities of white people at all, though she acknowledges here that she was alert to the impact of the white gaze in her personal life, and speaks with sadness of a friend who longed for blue eyes (whom we can see reflected in another of her books). Several of the other contributors to this film speak of how much this meant to them. There's a revealing moment in which Oprah Winfrey describes how she drew viewers into her book club with gentle literature so that every now and again she could hit them over the head with work like Morrison's. The notion that black people have lives when white people are not there was a dangerous one in that time and place and it still confuses some readers today.

Morrison talks here about how difficult it was for her to study black characters in literature at university, and also about personal issues like the challenge of being a single working mother, which highlight the additional problems created by intersectional prejudice. There's a look at the work she did as an editor and some reflection on the crucial but often overlooked aspect of that side of the publishing business, examining how she helped other writers to improve their work. Her own longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, makes a contribution, and discussion of The Black Book makes way for conversation about other important black writers whose work viewers may wish to investigate further.

At two hours long, this is a thorough, if not exhaustive, piece of work, which connects well with its subject's values. It's a film that will inspire people to read more of her work but, perhaps more importantly, it's a film that will inspire people to write.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2019
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This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary storyteller examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career. Toni Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, history, America and the human condition.

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Sundance 2019

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