Review

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am review – fearless icon of American literature lives her own words

The late, Nobel Prize-winning novelist explores her own life and legacy in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' affecting new documentary

Structured in large part around a series of original, face-to-face interviews with the great author (who passed away just a few months after its completion), Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a comprehensive – though never tiresome – review of an icon of American literature who doubled as an inspiration to the social and literary communities of which she was a proud member. Although it does not quite reach the heights of Rebecca Miller’s brilliant 2017 documentary Arthur Miller: Writer, The Pieces I Am is a timely and invaluable portrait of an artist whose works – Song of Solomon, Beloved – consistently rank among the most loved in literature.

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ inquiry begins at the source of Morrison’s perspective, and early contentiousness: her status as an African American woman attempting to break in to the early-1970s book scene with novels that – as she paraphrases James Baldwin to explain – averted “the obsession with the white perspective, the white gaze.” “I didn’t want to speak for black people,” Morrison explains. “I wanted to speak to black people.”

Born into a working-class family in Lorain, Ohio, where her father was a steelworker, Morrison recalls her upbringing as a curious, if not privileged, one. Having neighbours from Italy, Russia and Poland, she says, widened her perspective and that of her family. “My mother learned to cook this… cabbage thingy,” Morrison recounts, fondly, and in these moments, whilst also recalling the “looseness” of her social habits during her time as a college student, The Pieces I Am shines a wonderful, keenly human light on a writer whose genius frequently transcended the norm of her species.

But there’s a much-needed, overtly political slant to much of the Morrison story that Greenfield-Sanders opts to tell here. With interviews from the likes of Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey, Morrison’s role as an essential – if not always concerted – activist in the hot social climate of the early 1970s is poignantly explained. It’s in discussing Morrison’s essential politics that The Pieces I Am takes on a more stylish slant, as interviews are intercut with inspiring contextual footage of the literary world she so proudly changed – and which never changed her.

Morrison was the first African American woman to edit fiction at Random House, and – in 1993 – the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet she was also on the avant-garde of community activism from the early stages of her career, publishing controversial left-of-centre works alongside her own novels, which always pushed boundaries and sought status for a new type of writing. After winning the Nobel Prize, Morrison was asked why she thought her books had cut through to so many across the world. “I think I write well,” she replied. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am makes it abundantly clear just what an understatement that is.

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