Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ timely documentary on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist is a persuasive argument for rereading Morrison if you’ve already read her works – and if you haven’t, an imperative to get to it.
If we’re not to be consumed by total despair in the era of Trump, it is absolutely vital that we recall the American voices that are intelligent, critical, deeply moral and incredibly beautiful. Morrison, who died last August, was one such voice. Through novels such as The Bluest Eyes, Sulla and most famously the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, she asserted the black American experience, explored the legacy of slavery and created epic narratives that retained the intimacy of the fully felt life. As she insisted on receiving the Nobel Prize, she was happy to receive it as an American, as a black American, as a black woman as well as paying tribute to the places where she was brought up and lived and worked.
All of these various identities are drawn together in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am to provide a compelling portrait of the writer. Talking head interviews feature the contributions of Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and crime writer Walter Mosley. And yet the most fascinating voice is that of Morrison herself. She speaks about her upbringing and her family background. We hear of a grandfather who lived when it was illegal to teach black people to read and how the family fled north to Lorrain, Ohio, where she was born in a steel town of immigrants: a genuine melting pot.
Taking her middle name as her first, Toni made the most of her opportunities graduating from Howard University before gaining her masters at Cornell and turning to teaching. She married and had two sons before divorcing in the mid-sixties. Attempting to win a wage sufficient for her household she got a job as an editor, swiftly advancing to become a senior editor for Random House. If Morrison had never written a word, her groundbreaking work as an editor promoting the writing of a whole slew of black American authors would have secured her a name in the world of American letters. But in the early seventies, she published her first novels which increasingly garnered her a reputation. The championing of Oprah Winfrey boosted both her reputation and novel sales and led to a film version of Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by and starring Winfrey.
The breadth of fans – from talk show hosts to former presidents – is testament to Morrison’s impact which frequently was better appreciated on the world stage than at home. With a wealth of archive footage alongside the contemporary interviews, Greenfield-Sanders’ film provides valuable context, especially when showing the brutality of slavery and the years of Jim Crow. The cleverness, however, comes with the decision to mostly allow Morrison to speak and tell her own story. Of course, this leads to some ellipses – elements of her private life are quietly passed over – but the eloquence is worth it and most will emerge knowing and appreciating Morrison more. And if it leads to new readers, it will be undoubtedly a force for good.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty