An intimate portrait of America’s beloved author Toni Morrison

An intimate portrait of America’s beloved author Toni Morrison

It's that time again. Great independent films are rolling out, one after the other, at the Mecca of Indie film festivals – Sundance. I had the privilege to see a sneak preview of one of those anticipated premieres, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' new documentary ”Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”. What an opportunity to get to know more about one of America's most beloved, ground breaking, and influential female authors.

I have fond memories of reading her books as a teenager in my native Sweden in the 80's and 90's, and I remember what a huge deal it was when she came to Stockholm to accept her Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. I still have the broadcasted images in my head of Morrison’s charismatic, colorful and exotic presence, standing out even among this global mix of fellow awardees, hovering head to head in deep conversation with His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

What I wasn’t aware of, however, was the lack of national recognition her contemporaries in America had protested earlier, because they felt she was snubbed of prestigious mainstream American awards. The Nobel press release states that Morrison, "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality." Was that perhaps a reality mainstream America wasn’t ready for back then?

Words Have Power

The documentary examines Morrison's life, works and challenges, starting with childhood memories and continuing throughout her long and distinguished literary career. Her story is told through interlacing artwork, archive footage and interviews with Morrison herself and her peers. The film opens as a collage, piecing patches of images together as the face of Morrison slowly appears. The portrait is specially created by artist Mickalene Thomas to underline the title, “The Pieces I Am,” before we are introduced to Morrison herself.

Morrison is looking straight into the camera, directly addressing us, the viewers, as her story begins. She was brought up in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio by poor but loving parents. Her early relationship with words consisted of drawing them with pebbles on the road together with her sister outside of their house. They drew things like ”I hat you” since they didn't know the ”e” yet, and another expression they didn't understand the meaning of, starting with ”fu”. But before they got to the ”c”, their mother came running out and made them erase it. That day, Morrison learnt that words have power.

The Early Years

Her hometown was a melting pot of different cultures and she didn't experience segregation until she enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time, which she found bizarre enough to steal the signs and send home to her family for laughs.

She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. After graduation, she began teaching English at Texas Southern University before moving back to teach at Howard. This is when she met her husband Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, through a random encounter on the street. They married in 1958 and had two sons before divorcing in 1964.

Single motherhood wasn't easy. She'd get up before dawn to write, in order to get three or four hours of work done before taking care of her kids. She would scribble on little notes in her car when stuck in traffic, and she had to constantly ask all of her family members for help with the kids, in order to juggle work, writing and domestic care. After the divorce she had landed an editor job at a division of Random House in Syracuse, but soon got transferred to the New York City office, where she became the publisher's first African American woman senior editor in the fiction department. In 1970, when she was thirty-nine years old, she published her first novel; ”The Bluest Eye.”

The African American Experience

The 70's was an important era for African American awareness, and in her role as an editor, Morrison brought out the autobiography of boxer Muhammad Ali, ”The Greatest” (1975) and worked on such groundbreaking compositions as the ”Contemporary African Literature” (1972). She also developed and edited ”The Black Book” (1974), a famous anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents of African American life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 70's.

But she noticed that the African American movement mostly featured men. She also observed that the African American literature she came across, was written in the way of explaining the African American experience to a white audience. She felt this phenomena while writing her own novels, as if she had a little white male sitting on her shoulder, and was explaining the story to him. She had to consciously free herself from this image, in order to genuinely write about the African American experience from a female perspective.

Toni Morrison (circa 2015) from Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

How The Film Came About

This, of course, is not without irony within the context of the film, since the whole documentary literary is about her explaining her life to white male filmmaker Greenfield-Sanders. Struggling to gain full control of the fictive stories written by her, the portrait of her is constructed through someone else’s eyes. But maybe it has to be this way - the mark we leave behind is not for us to judge.

Thankfully, her life story is captured with utmost respect by a very talented filmmaker, who's also a dear friend and collaborator since 38 years. As he explains in the press notes:

"In 2014, I suggested a documentary about her life. At this point, Toni Morrison was world famous but quite private. She was reluctant to talk about herself and hesitant about the hours required for filmed interviews. But she didn’t say no."

Greenfield-Sanders insisted, since he felt her story was too important not to be told:

"I explained how important I thought it would be to hear from her friends and colleagues and to capture on film her history, accomplishments and the important themes of her many works. Hers was a monumental life that had impacted the world’s culture. A life that deserved an important documentary. It was also a film I really wanted to make. Eventually, Toni agreed."

And as we see in the documentary, he's not the only one considering her story too important not to be told - her peers are also praising her throughout the film. Important public personas such as Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Oprah Winfrey, Hilton Als, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Robert Gottlieb, Farah Griffin, Russell Banks, David Carrasco, Paula Giddings and Richard Danielpour speak of Morrison's groundbreaking depictions of female friendships, and how they love that ”she's not afraid to be black.”

Her peers explain that ”if you don't understand the history of black people, you don't understand America.” And it seems like the time is finally ripe to embrace that aspect of American reality. Paradoxically, by being so true to the African American experience, the essence of her stories in fact transcends gender and race. It's about being human.

According to Oprah, ”she captures the very essence of what it means to be human and to be alive”, while Sanchez poetically describes her as ”a blessed one, put on this earth to help us walk upright as human beings”.

A Wonderful Tribute

”Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” is a wonderful tribute to her life, leaving little doubt of her impact, if any such doubts should remain. While the 119 minute documentary is quite traditional in its way of storytelling, its strength is how it allows us to get to know the otherwise so private Morrison a little bit better. The film is nicely shot throughout, and I greatly enjoyed the artwork by contemporary African American artists such as Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson and Kerry James Marshall.

The film just received its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Premieres section, and is set to be aired on PBS later on. More venues are almost guaranteed to be added, so look out for it. Today mainstream America is more than ready to embrace Morrison. It’s a film I can warmly recommend.

Cover photo: Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.