Except for a brief period in my pre-teens when I thought it wasn’t “cool,” I’ve always been an avid reader. I was practically raised in the library, and to this day, I’m always reading something (sometimes more than one thing). One of the first books I can remember being blown away by is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a book I read in high school, not because I was assigned to or because I was trying to impress anyone, but because I chose to. I can recall knowing as I read it that this was something special, something different from the books I was used to reading. Morrison’s sprawling, exquisite language flowed off the page in ways I certainly wasn’t familiar with; even if I couldn’t follow everything at first pass, I didn’t mind retracing my own steps, re-reading portions to be sure I’d followed exactly what was unfolding.
I’ve discovered many other authors I adore since then (Curtis Sittenfeld, Ian McEwan, Wally Lamb), but none hold as much space on my bookshelves even now as Ms. Morrison; even if it takes me months to get to them, I always pick up her latest novel the moment I get the opportunity. I know instinctively it will be worth setting aside the time for.
This bias is perhaps one reason I enjoyed Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the new documentary about the acclaimed editor, teacher, author and, let’s be honest, national treasure. But whether you’ve read her novels as voraciously as I have or not, you’ll find much to appreciate in this wonderfully personal chronicle of Morrison’s life and work. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Latino List), the first ten minutes or so of the film are Ms. Morrison speaking directly to camera, recounting her early morning writing habits and other minutiae of her day to day. Were this the entire film, just an intimate if one-sided conversation with the prolific author, that would be perfectly OK, so warm and wise is she.
Greenfield-Sanders expands the scope, of course, marrying the straight-to-camera interviews with Morrison with archival footage, images and interviews with the activists, artists and scholars who know Morrison best. Though it premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and Magnolia Pictures is releasing the film theatrically, it was made as part of PBS’s “American Masters” series, meaning the film is nothing if not approachable. And given the depths the film explores around race, womanhood, history, creativity and recognition therein, that approachability serves as an entry point to a meaningful conversation Morrison has been championing throughout her career.
The film unfolds mostly chronologically, recounting Chloe Wofford’s early years growing up in an Ohio industrial town on the banks of Lake Erie; she says she started going by Toni (short for Anthony, her baptismal name) since no one ever knew how to pronounce Chloe. She attended Howard University, an experience that not only brought her closer to own blackness, but to the many nuances of black culture itself. As an editor in New York, she carved out time in the mornings to write her own work, ultimately alternating between doing the publishing and being published. Greenfield-Sanders explores the reception for her early books, a reminder of just how groundbreaking her writing was for the time; as she puts it, she endeavored to remove the assumed white reader on the other side of the page. She did not feel the need to cater to an audience that didn’t understand her, and as such her approach to her narratives proved confusing (and sometimes frustrating) to readers accustomed to being written to.
To our great benefit, Morrison never wavered in her voice or style, and the world eventually caught up with her, coming to appreciate her stories as the magnificent contributions to our collective culture that they are. Oprah Winfrey appears throughout the film, recounting just how much “Beloved” changed her own life (and the slightly stalker-ish way she got in touch with Morrison after reading it!). She articulates the impact Morrison has had and will continue to have on American culture and history, delivering one of the most poignant scenes in the film. She relays a scene from Song of Solomon where a main character is eulogized with the simple yet powerful “And she was loved!” We know where she’s going with this, of course, but it’s nevertheless beautiful to hear: Toni Morrison, she is loved.