'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am' Finally Gives a More Complete Picture of an Amazing Life

Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Starring Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Russell Banks, Angela Davis

BY Vish KhannaPublished Jul 8, 2019

After reading Toni Morrison's groundbreaking 1987 novel Beloved, Oprah Winfrey was so fixated on locating the author to discuss it, she convinced a local fire department to give her Morrison's private, unlisted phone number. Here, in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' intimate and loving portrait, Morrison reveals that even after hearing Winfrey's voice on the line and wondering how the TV star got her digits, her second thought was "How did the fire department get my phone number?"
Morrison is not as reclusive as some of her ilk; The Pieces I Am utilizes footage from a number of TV interviews she has granted over her five decades in the public eye. But her hard life — from growing up poor and black in classist, racist America, to being a single mom desperately trying to safely raise two sons — has never really been the focus of such conversations, as she tends mostly to speak about her work.
With a cast of her colleagues and fans offering context and singing her praises, this documentary offers a truly revealing portrait of one of our most accomplished and influential, if less than celebrated, literary figures. We learn of her early morning writing routine, the pivotal role she played for black literature as an editor at Random House, and her penchant for bribing and pleasing people with her apparently out-of-this-world homemade carrot cake.
The unprecedented rawness of her stories, as truly unmediated perspectives on the experiences of African-Americans over four centuries, and how her works have been banned by schools, is explored in startling detail. And, though she has received them by now, the fact that it took some doing for Morrison to be recognized with awards like the Pulitzer (which she won in 1988) Nobel Prize for Literature (which we won in 1993) is examined for what it is — the relegation and negation of genius found within a person who happens to be both black and a woman in America.
Greenfield-Sanders doesn't rely on many frills to tell us the story of Toni Morrison. The camera scrolls over still photos to animate them, and sudden close-ups on talking heads are employed for emphasis on occasion. But by and large, the interview subjects, each colourful and impassioned in their own way, come across unfettered and free.
Morrison herself, now 88 years old, is a glowing, vibrant presence and we get to know her so well in The Pieces I Am, we have no doubt about why she is loved.

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