Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. The documentary, Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am, is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s until the conclusion of the film in 2019. Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo, rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.
Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-town she remembers as being integrated, recalls experiencing segregation in the 1950’s only after she arrived in Washington, DC to attend Howard University. She published much later than most writers, but her college experience textured her writings. She wrote from the vantage point of wounded women who had the strength and will to find often unexpected and hard-won redemption and triumph, not victimhood. But her novels speak to people globally, to their traumas and their joys, in a language which is pure inspiration. Places and people– previously invisible or unnoticed– become powerful voices.
The documentary deftly reveals that Toni Morrison’s work is the essence of beautiful storytelling. Despite the fact that her novels are about private pain as well as collective trauma, both raw and searing, tender and compassionate, Toni Morrison is an electrifying and positive personality. Perhaps startling, — given the dark and sobering themes of her novels,– the viewer sees an ebullient, charismatic and theatrical mind of extraordinary talent: both buoyant and vivacious. Friends repeatedly describe her as a party-goer who loves clothes and is joyful in being herself and celebrating any occasion with friends. Many were invited to her Nobel Prize parties. But she doesn’t tolerate fools easily, either.
First and foremost, Morrison is a literary warrior reflecting the dark mirror of untold truths, things unsaid. When asked by Dick Cavett on his nightly talk show if she dislikes being praised as a Black writer, she beams and answers that she is proud of being a Black woman writer but cringes at being asked that question by white interviewers.
Blowback was inevitable in the context of her meteoric rise in popularity. The New York Times declared Morrison too talented to “remain a recorder of black provincial life” in its review of her book, Sula. The mid-1980s furor that followed resulted in a petition signed by prominent Black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize. In 1993 it was in Europe that her magnificent work was first awarded the highest honor any author can receive: the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But we also see a private, delightful writer who has the heft and electrical charge of a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Her prose is intricately woven with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, toughness and fearlessness. And so is the woman–who challenged the inflection and fantasy of the American dream in every sentence she spoke publicly and in every line she wrote. Moving photographs–some of her family threaded together with 19th-century engravings and contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden among others–contribute to the memorable beauty of Toni Morrison and the world she has created.
I watched this and was transfixed. The wisdom of Ms. Morrison is eternal…it touches us all.
Availability: Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix.