On its surface, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am looks like they typical documentary about a famous person. It’s a mélange of interviews with Morrison, along with other writers, critics and scholars, blended with archival film and photos. The difference is that here it’s done better than usual, and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has a powerful sense of visual imagery and rhythm. He’s made a complex, beautiful portrait.
The witnesses to Morrison’s career are the right ones: poet Sonia Sanchez, Oprah Winfrey, Morrison’s editor Robert Gottlieb, scholar Farah Griffin, critic Hilton Als. They don’t just praise Morrison – although they do that – but each brings perspective and understanding to a great literary figure. Harvard religious studies teacher David Carrasco makes the stunning observation that Morrison’s writing is for him the Emancipation Proclamation of language.
Early in Toni Morrison’s career, writers like her were considered black or female or both, and were limited to those categories. She was labeled good, for a black woman writer, and she was also judged as narrow because she wrote mostly about black life. William Faulkner, who was still alive when Morrison began her work, wrote exclusively about a single fictional county in Mississippi – but as a white man, his work was called universal in its meanings. Toni Morrison’s writing obliterates that limitation on her work, and she did it just like Faulkner, in a way. Morrison finds the universal by being incredibly particular and ridding her work of the necessity for white or male approval.
The conversation among this group of people is thrilling, but what makes Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am sing as a movie is director Greenfield-Sanders’s visual portrait of Toni Morrison. He interviews her against a blank gray wall; she and the camera, meaning us, look right at each other. She wears mostly gray with some black accents, which make her skin tones pop and makes her presence radiant. But the neutrality also helps her conversation stand out and creates a visual center for everything else – the other interviews are done off center, so Morrison is the only person with whom the film has eye to eye contact.
Director Greenfield-Sanders then cuts in a ton of archival footage. But it’s not just illustration – photos of Morrison’s parents or the house where she grew up. The old images deepen the film with shots of slaves in fields and slave quarters, photos of black people both young and old over many decades. Morrison now lives in a contemporary-looking home on a big lake, and with pictures of the home there are also shots of a boat dock, and long pensive looks at the water. Morrison talks about how she likes to be up just before sunrise – it’s a creative time for her – so over and over the movie shows the sunrise over the water and you feel the inspiration Morrison gets from these moments.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is more than a portrait of this artist. It’s an expansive picture. The fine African American filmmaker Charles Burnett has said that when he was still in film school, he realized that the lives and images of black people have as much resonance as metaphors of human life as images of any other kind of human beings. That may sound obvious, but until Toni Morrison came along basically only black people knew that was true. With this movie, it’s obvious that stories like Beloved. Morrison’s most famous book are intensely about black American life, but also about All-American life, and finally about all life.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens Friday, July 5 at the Chez Artiste in Denver.