Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Review by Ben Pantrey

It’s been less than a year since Toni Morrison’s death at the age of 88: an event which resulted in an outpouring of public grief from her wide and diverse base of readers. It has brought her to the attention of people who had perhaps overlooked her novels before. The Pieces I Am is a documentary about Morrison, compiled from interviews with the author herself and several of her colleagues and contemporaries. These include Angela Davis, whom Morrison worked as an editor for, Morrison’s own editor Robert Gottlieb, Oprah Winfrey, and several others.

The documentary premiered at Sundance in January 2019, several months before Morrison’s death, and does a good job at introducing her to its viewers. We start from Morrison describing her burgeoning love of language as a child, her writing method, the topics her early books covered, and the trajectory of her career. The documentary brings us up to the point when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. I should note that there are spoilers to her early novels, especially Beloved, here.

The interviews are assembled together well, with a clear skillfulness in terms of pace and flow. There are no chapters or clear divisions in the documentary, but the movement from one topic to the next feels natural and smooth. The heart and soul of the documentary is, of course, Morrison herself. Her description of the writing process and her advice for young writers is well worth hearing.

There are no chapters or clear divisions in the documentary, but the movement from one topic to the next feels natural and smooth.

Morrison’s work didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. She wrote in opposition to a tendency in literature that defined serious work as that which describes the experience of middle class white people. I don’t think this context should be ignored, but I did find it a little disappointing that the documentary devoted time to examining the backlash Morrison received as she became an acclaimed author. After she was awarded the Nobel Prize, for example, some newspapers published opinion pieces that suggested that she was chosen as winner out of “political correctness”. Another interviewee notes that you could only hold that opinion if you’d never read any of Morrison’s work. If so, why did this documentary feel these ignorant voices had to be heard and repeated? 

This documentary is founded almost entirely on interviews, and as such, there were some problems with superfluity on the visual side. At times, what was happening on screen amounted to a high definition PowerPoint presentation, with the camera slowly zooming in and out of different photographs as jazz music played innocuously in the background.

Overall, The Pieces I Am is a pleasantly structured introduction to Toni Morrison. I left the cinema with an eagerness to go read her novels. Despite this, the somewhat dry way it’s presented visually makes it seem more suited to Netflix than the big screen. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will open to a limited release at the IFI on March 6th.

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