Documentary, rated PG-13, 119 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
The appeal of this stirring documentary is the pleasure it affords in spending of a couple of hours in the world of the great Toni Morrison, her friends, and her literary legacy.
It’s always interesting to learn the background story of a major cultural icon. How, from where she started, did she reach where she is today? Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders takes us on that journey. We revisit the apartheid that drove her family north from Alabama to Lorain, Ohio, in search of a better life for their children. We follow her progress to Howard University, into teaching, and then into the world of New York publishing. Along the way she married, had two children, divorced, and found a way to begin her writing career by using the precious uninterrupted hours of early morning to focus on putting words on paper.
It was at Howard, in the very southern city of Washington, D.C., in the late ’40s and early ’50s, that she encountered her first real taste of segregation, even in the Howard sororities that formed around relative lightness of skin color. Her awareness of that cultural divide only grew and deepened with the publication in 1970 of her debut novel The Bluest Eye; and then her second, Sula, which elicited praise from reviewers but also the patronizing suggestion (from a New York Times critic) that she was too good a writer to restrict herself to “provincial” black issues and needed to direct her perspective toward a wider (read “white”) audience.
Morrison’s vision originates determinedly and unapologetically from the black experience. It’s informed by her perspective as a woman battling sexism in society and literature, and it’s driven by her love of language and her appreciation of the power of words.
The Pieces I Am features extensive interviews with Morrison’s friends and colleagues, who include Walter Mosley, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, and Robert Gottlieb, her one-time colleague at Random House and editor of almost all her books. But by far the most commanding presence here is the 88-year-old Nobel Prize-winner herself, an imposing figure who sits comfortably and forthrightly facing the camera, recalling the circumstances and trajectory of her journey, and laughing a lot. Sometimes the laughter comes from pure enjoyment, and sometimes it’s driven by her wry reflection on what fools we mortals be.