If we do not tell our own stories, someone else will paint a picture of our lives and call it the truth. Prolific writer and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Toni Morrison has been writing her story and chronicling the lives of Black folk for nearly 50 years. Though her work is world renowned, her personal history and life’s journey has remained somewhat mysterious.
In director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders intimate documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the audience is taken on a journey through the Beloved author’s life, from her humble beginnings in Lorain, Ohio, to her days as an editor at Random House and then as a lecturer at Princeton University. Using Morrison’s own recollections along with anecdotes from her childhood and earlier years, the author and Greenfield-Sanders construct a picture of a woman who single-handedly reshaped literature not just for Black folks, but for lovers of language and the written word across the globe.
Toni Morrison’s life did not begin with her birth in 1931. Instead, The Pieces I Am stretches backward —two generations before Morrison — to her grandfather, who would proudly boast to anyone listening that he’d read the Bible from cover to cover five times. Literacy has never been a given for members of the Black community which is why for Morrison — who learned to read at age three— books have always been somewhat of a miracle.
Raised in a deeply impoverished household by a hardworking father who refused to allow white people on his doorstep, and a mother who watched her daughters like a hawk, Morrison knew that in order to step into herself she had to get out of Ohio. She chose Howard University as a means of escape, and it was in comparing her experiences as a young woman in D.C. against the small interracial town where she was raised that stories began speaking to her. She was inspired to write the narratives that she never saw in the thousands of books she’s read over the course of her life. For the American Book Award winner, Black women have always been at the center of American history. As an editor, she also worked tirelessly to elevate other Black writers. The words of towering figures like Muhammad Ali and Toni Cade Bambara all came across Morrison’s desk, and were all sharpened and sharpened by her pen.
For those looking for a more traditional documentary, this is not it. Greenfield-Sanders does not stick to a rigid timeline. Instead, The Pieces I Am unfolds as though the audience is having a conversation with Morrison, which is why when chronicling the novelist’s work it begins with Sula, Morrison’s second novel instead of her first, The Bluest Eye.
Highly detailed with interviews from figures like Oprah Winfrey and Angela Davis, and jam-packed with archival material, what’s most interesting about The Pieces I Am is not just Morrison’s explanations and reflections of her work but her steadfast determination while editing, writing and raising two children on her own, to never indulge the white gaze. She wrote for herself and her people, and she remains unapologetic about it.
Over eight decades of life cannot be truncated down into a two-hour film. A good chunk of Morrison’s life and work are either skimmed over or not touched on at all. Though we are given insider details about her thought process behind Beloved and Song of Solomon, other adored works like Jazz and Love as well as the implosion of Morrison’s marriage are hardly discussed at all.
And yet, these absences don’t weaken The Pieces I Am. As someone who did not take herself seriously as a writer until her mid-30s and who also had to deal with rampant misogynoir from all sides, The Pieces I Am is a comprehensive examination of Morrison, the perseverance of Black women and how we understand ourselves as a people.
Most intriguing here is that unlike most subjects of documentaries who are long gone before their life’s work is categorized and placed on display, there is no speculation about Morrison’s journey. She tells it as it was and how it remains to be.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 27, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide