Toni Morrison is an absolutely beautiful wordsmith and a beautiful force on multiple fronts, and if this documentary is an unabashed love letter to her life and work, I say:
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is a conventional, traditionally structured bio-doc, with only occasional forays into creative visuals or stylistic touches, but it still stands tall as a valuable and fascinating and insightful and soaring and inspirational record of the life and times and work of an American treasure.
“Toni Morrison’s work is for all of us,” says Oprah Winfrey, who featured Morrison’s works multiple times on her “Oprah’s Book Club” shows and, of course, starred in and produced the feature film adaptation of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved.”
“Her words … (are friends) to our minds. That’s what you’re feeling when you’re in the midst of a read – it comforts you and consoles you, and allows you to understand that pain is OK.”
Even more valuable than the insights from longtime friends and colleagues, such as Oprah, Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis and Morrison’s longtime editor Robert Gottlieb, are the stories and remembrances and observations from 88-year-old Morrison, who is her typically engaging, illuminating, penetrating, provocative, warm, brilliant self as she recalls key moments from her childhood, shares deeply personal stories about her parents and her life as a college student, a star editor and finally an author whose work has touched millions and shook up the world more than a few times.
Even when Morrison tells a breezy anecdote in which she merrily boasts of her prowess as baker of the greatest carrot cakes ever made (man, I want to try a slice of that cake!), she is a breathtakingly magnetic storyteller. And when the talk turns to infinitely more serious subjects – as when Morrison talks about a childhood friend of hers who prayed for blue eyes for two years, an anecdote that served as the inspiration for her first book, “The Bluest Eye” – she commands the moment and we hang on every word.
“The Pieces I Am” traces Morrison’s path from her childhood in Ohio through her college years at Howard University to her time as a teacher and her work as an editor, first in Syracuse and then in New York City.
Morrison was 39 when “The Bluest Eye” was published in 1970. As her star continued to rise with the publications of such works as “Sula” and “Song of Solomon,” she was raising two sons as a single mother and, as an editor, overseeing works by the aforementioned Davis and even the mega-selling “The Greatest” by Muhammad Ali.
Talk about multitasking.
“I thought it was important for people to be in the streets, but they couldn’t last …,” says Morrison of the civil rights protests of the time. “You needed a record. It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African Americans – and that would last.”
Time and again in “The Pieces I Am,” Morrison talks about the importance of reading in her life, from the time she was a child through her high school and college years.
Now, Toni Morrison’s works have found an honored and well-deserved place on the world’s bookshelves – physical and online.
We get to read her work. That’s our privilege.