Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ spellbinding tribute to a literary treasure that makes you feel as if you have lost a friend.
Beloved Gazeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This sensitive documentary looking back at Toni Morrison’s long life was completed when she was 88: she saw the finished version just months before her death in August 2019. It was made by her friend of many years, photographer and documentary maker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
Morrison was an extraordinary, multi-talented woman. During her distinguished career as Random House editor, award-winning author, university professor of English, intellectual and international literary figure, she was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved in 1988.
The film takes us not strictly chronologically through her life, using her novels as markers along the way. – Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved and more … and The Black Book, which she edited.
She discovered the power of words as a child, and realised that reading can be a revolutionary act. Lifelong, she questioned the assumption that the white gaze should be the dominant one. Everything in her career and her life demonstrated her belief in the value of black people and the black perspective, the friendship of women: she sought always to empower black people and women during her career and in her work.
In the film, she comes across as immensely likeable, clever, kind, generous, funny, wise, compassionate, as proud of her wonderful carrot cake as any of her other achievements – someone you would love to have known. She speaks with self-knowledge direct to camera.
Her appearances are intercut with images of stunning artworks by 21 mainly African-American artists – Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas and Charles White among others.
Interviews with many luminaries, critics and friends, including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Hilton Als, Paula Giddings, Angela Davis, Russell Banks and Sonia Sanchez, and her Random House boss Robert Bernstein, who encouraged her to write full time, expand on the aspects of her life that they knew.
As well as her many other qualities, Morrison was always a formidable woman, never put off by the difficulty of succeeding against discrimination as a black woman, a single mother, in a white man’s world. Secure in her knowledge of her own abilities, she knew she could succeed because “I was more interesting than they were”. She was right.
Through the positive glow of the film, we gain a greater appreciation of what drove her work and her person, and of her influence on American literature. By the end it feels as if we had lost a lovely friend.
And although Greenfield-Sanders is a white director making a film about a black cultural icon and her legacy, he successfully avoids the ‘white gaze’. He gives Morrison the space and respect she so richly deserves, and which took her too long to gain in life. The title of his film, ‘the pieces I am’, the jigsaw that makes a person, is a quote from her novel Beloved.
This spellbinding film about an inspirational woman, a fitting tribute to a national treasure, is released in time to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is released on 6 March 2020 in cinemas in the UK and in the UK and Ireland on demand on 30 March 2020 on the following platforms: Sky Store, Virgin Media, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, You Tube and Google Play.