If you’re thinking of spending two hours watching a documentary about Toni Morrison, there are a few things you likely already know.
You probably know that she’s the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author of “Beloved” (1987) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970). You probably know that she writes about slavery and its white-knuckled grip on the present, that she chronicles black life in America as an entanglement of history and myth. Depending on which teacher introduced you to her books, you might know that her ascent inflamed the eternal debate about the place of marginalized writers in the literary establishment, that she simultaneously blew that argument open and rendered it irrelevant. In other words: If you’re even thinking about taking two hours of your day to watch “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” you probably don’t need to be convinced that Toni Morrison is a big deal.
So Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the director and a friend of the subject, has a few hurdles in front of him. How do you turn a literary career into something compelling for the screen? How do you make a fresh argument about the greatness of Morrison to an audience that doesn’t need to be persuaded? And why should anyone bother watching a movie about the brilliance of Toni Morrison when they could pick up one of her books and experience it for themselves?
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” roughly traces her life from the arrival of her family in the small industrial city of Lorain, Ohio, to her eminent present. It documents Morrison’s early career as an editor at Random House and her transition to writing fiction full time. It emphasizes just a few of her novels, namely “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” (1973) “Song of Solomon,” (1977) and “Beloved.” The film successfully charts Morrison’s journey to the literary firmament without accepting a simple definition of greatness. It’s clear that her genius is independent of the honors she’s received. The white-dominated literary world and its initial hostility to Morrison make up a big part of the story, but by the time she receives her Nobel, in 1993, it’s seems as if these things are beside the point.
The movie isn’t flashy or stylish. It’s composed of talking-head interviews with professors, critics, colleagues, friends, and the famously reticent Morrison. The conversations are livened up with relevant archival materials and still images by artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and Gordon Parks. But the most captivating footage is, of course, the interview with Morrison. She sits at the center of the screen, speaking directly to the camera. The effect is intimate, but not cozy. It’s like attending office hours for the professor you love and fear. Morrison speaks candidly and extemporaneously but delivers her answers like a stage actor. You feel lucky to bask in her gaze.
Morrison’s majestic presence reverberates in all the other interviews. The impressive roster of interviewees includes superstar collaborators such as Oprah Winfrey and black radical activist Angela Davis, critics and scholars, like Hilton Als and Columbia University’s Farah Griffin, and figures from Morrison’s career as an editor, like Robert Gottlieb, the publishing colleague who would go on to edit most of her books. Some of the most delicious details are shared by the blazer-clad, nicotine-voiced writer Fran Lebowitz, who was once scolded for distracting Morrison from her editorial work at Random House. Predictably, all of these speakers praise their friend and colleague.
The litany of praise can feel monotonous, but it’s tempered with humor. It’s fun to hear about America’s most famous talk-show host’s farcical attempt to track down Morrison’s contact information (Oprah ended up calling the fire department in Morrison’s town to get connected). It’s enjoyable to watch the indomitable Angela Davis admit, smiling, that Morrison “persuaded me that the book she wanted to publish was the book I wanted to write, only I was not aware of it at that time.” The person who seems most tickled by Morrison’s power and influence is Morrison herself. She has a letter hanging in her bathroom, she says, from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which banned her novel “Paradise” (1997) in fear of enabling a prison riot.
“How powerful is that?” Morrison says with a laugh. “I could tear up the whole place.”
The effusive interviews with colleagues and admirers work to illustrate the conflict between Morrison and an establishment that was foolish enough to doubt her. The film does a bit of delightful score-settling as it revisits a New York Times review that called “Sula” “provincial” and a Washington Post article that quoted male writers who were embittered by her success. “’Beloved’ was a fraud,” an anonymous voice-over reads mockingly.
It’s a solemn story, too. As an editor, Morrison fought for the writing of black luminaries such as Davis and Gayl Jones. She recounts being pitted against Jones and novelist Ishmael Reed, in a contest of depicting black life “accurately.” She recalls that she couldn’t call herself a writer until after she had published her third book.
The film deftly balances the politics of the literary establishment with the real consequences of being shut out of it. Greenfield-Sanders smartly filters the concluding Nobel Prize sequence through the funny, fast-talking Lebowitz, who was invited to the festivities in Sweden as one of Morrison’s guests. It keeps us from taking the ceremony too seriously. “I highly recommend that you have a friend who wins the Nobel Prize,” Lebowitz says.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 120 minutes. PG-13 (some disturbing images/thematic material).Marella Gayla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marellagayla.