Film Review: TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (2019) DIR. TIMOTHY GREENFIELD- SANDERS
This is probably the most uplifting film in any genre that I can recall. The gift of meeting Toni Morrison in person is the point. What a treasure she is. It almost wouldn’t matter if she had not accomplished so much, the sheer joy of being in her presence would be enough. The wisdom, compassion and deep understanding of humanity and the world, combined with her beautiful detachment and the delightful giggle which accompanies some of the shockingly absurd incidents in her life. Every word which comes from her mouth or pen is infused with such innate intelligence that it never has to exert itself. It is simply always there. It is one of the pieces she is. The title is particularly well-suited to this multi-talented, tireless woman’s life and career. It is one of the pieces she is. It is brilliantly evoked in the opening credits by Mickalene Thomas’ collage work. The facts of her life are indeed extremely disparate and simultaneous - single mother, teacher, editor, fiction writer.
Greenfield-Sanders has Morrison tell her story directly to the camera, which suits her perfectly as she speaks so naturally and candidly that one feels as if she is talking only to you. Her openness about painful and troubling events in her life is leavened by an almost existential lightheartedness at their absurdity. She talks of incidents from her childhood growing up in the south where literacy was rare among the black people of her parents generation. It was not legal to teach them to read. She grew up in a proudly and defiantly literate household, where the sight of a black child writing words on a sidewalk could bring negative attention. Nonetheless her memories of this period are suffused with warmth, affection and humor. The unpleasant realities which prompted the decision to join the northward migration and landed them in Lorain, Ohio did not dim her enthusiasm for her new home. The ethnically mixed working class milieu was pervasive and eliminated the shame from being poor. On the contrary, it seemed to bring solidarity without prejudice. In short, it was safe.
Young Toni excelled and proved a superior student and decided to go to Howard University to get a little distance from her family. There she had the uncomfortable realization that even an all-black college had its own subtle forms of racism. Nonetheless, she flourished and found her direction in writing. She also found the sought-after sexual awakening, describing it with a naughty smile, “I was loose”. Following college she got a job at a small publishing house as an editor. She also became a teacher at Howard. Somewhere along the way she married, had two sons, and got divorced. Her employer was bought by Random House and she was asked to move to NYC. Of course she said yes and had to enlist her mother and family to help her with the boys. It was apparently very trying. On top of all of this stress she was teaching. Hard to imagine having all of that going on and still finding time to write her first book.
She thrived at Random House and found a champion in Robert Gottlieb. She fought for and succeeded in getting something close to equal pay for women. It was risky. But in this she was fearless. She moved Random House in her direction, convincing them to publish black authors like Angela Davis and Mohammed Ali. She was becoming quite a force to be reckoned with and yet the response to her first novel, THE BLUEST EYE, revealed the deep resistance to the notion of anyone expressing the black experience. Reactions were stunningly ignorant, narrow- minded and deprecating. She was not deterred. Rather it allowed her the opportunity to elucidate her point of view. It was radical. Her goal was to present essential stories of regular black people in their own world, in their own words, absent the white gaze. It was the thing which the white male establishment could not bear. How could it be possible for a world to exist without consciousness of the point-of-view of the white observer? By white standards it was not worth taking seriously. That is what she was up against. And that is what she indefatigably continued to do. By the time BELOVED was published, she was so well-known and respected that she could no longer be ignored by the establishment. At last, long-overdue awards were given. She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, American Book Award for BELOVED, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and most importantly the Nobel Prize for Literature. Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was only when her boss, editor and friend, Robert Gottlieb informed her it was time for her to retire from all work except her own writing that she even considered it. This is the level of her modesty and sense of duty. It is hard to fathom. And finally, now she only writes. She says it was the most liberating moment of her life. So well deserved. Now at 88 and is doing the one single thing which sustained her through this phenomenally full, rich life. We are all the richer for what she has given us and no doubt will continue to give us.
The stories of her life in publishing, writing and living are so full of fascinating, funny, insightful events, battles, triumphs, surprises and love. The accompanying interviews with Hilton Als, Walter Mosley and Fran Liebowitz fill out many moments and reveal the deep affection and respect of her peers. The way that Greenfield-Sanders has incorporated the selection of work of other black artists, Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson and Kerry James Marshall is absolutely masterful, and the soundtrack from Kathryn Bostic is the final flourish to my idea of a perfect tribute to a most worthy human being. I cannot express what a tonic it is to be in the company of this remarkable woman. I cannot get enough of her. She is nothing less than a national treasure. And kudos for Greenfield-Sanders for getting it so right and so perfectly.