Toni Morrison may be the most hypnotic speaker among any living writer. It's not only the precision and care with which she chooses her words; it's the quality of her voice — both authoritative and light. When she reads her own work, it doesn't sound like contemporary fiction. It sounds like she's reciting from memory some ancient myth. It's timeless and elegant in its simplicity. And yet her work is urgent and potent and endlessly revealing in its excavation of the human experience.
She speaks a great deal in the new documentary devoted to her life and work, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, from director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee. In old interview footage and in new recorded interviews, the 88-year-old Nobel laureate is relaxed in her position as literary royalty. The two-hour film is a celebration of her ideas and her impact.
Following the trajectory of a standard biographical documentary, The Pieces I Am follows Morrison from her childhood in Lorain, Ohio, to her collegiate days at Howard University, to parenthood, to professional life to literary success. It tackles both the craft and content of her award-winning fiction and chronicles the controversies that her novels often instigated.
Even after winning the 1993 Nobel Prize, Morrison could not rid herself of critics who argued that her work was "too narrowly focused" on the black experience, that she was "too talented" to remain a "recorder of black provincial life." Morrison has pushed back against those who would qualify her acclaim, who say that she's a pretty good writer "for a woman" or "for a black woman." These are pejorative, racist categorizations, and Morrison says so. "You would never ask an Irish writer or an Italian writer to move beyond their own experience."
Morrison worked for years as an editor at Random House, ushering important black books into the literary mainstream, including Gayl Jones' Corregidora and the autobiographies of both Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis. The film shows the remarkable ability of Morrison to write in stolen moments, jotting down thoughts on scraps of paper as she's sitting in traffic or cooking breakfast for her two sons.
Featuring an array of talking heads — Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Walter Mosley — the film shows not just how certain books or achievements were important moments in the life of Toni Morrison, but how Toni Morrison and her books have been pivotal in the history of American literature — and America itself.
The experience of the film is unlikely to be vastly improved upon on the big screen. But who could deny oneself the opportunity to hear Toni Morrison's golden voice in surround sound? — Sam Allard