“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” profiles the author of “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and other much-admired novels, with Morrison herself guiding viewers through her life and discussing the African-American stories she’s published, free of the white gaze. She’s a marvelous documentary subject.
Combining recent interviews, talk-show clips, photographs and archival materials, director-photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (HBO’s ”The Black List” and “The Latino List”) has crafted a collage-like artist portrait whose primary component is a conversation with the ever astute, now 88-year-old Morrison. Artworks by Mickalene Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker and other major black artists complement the words.
Born Chloe Wofford during the Great Depression, Morrison recalls growing up in multicultural Lorain, Ohio, with parents who were part of the Great Migration. She studied English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she experienced racial segregation.
After a divorce, she raised two sons as a single working mother. As an editor at Random House, she published books about African-American life, many by women. Unlike so much literature, these publications weren’t tailored to white sensibilities.
Intimate experiences and African-American history come together, sometimes harshly, in Morrison’s novels. The first was 1970’s “The Bluest Eye,” about a black girl yearning to be white. “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” followed. Reviewers recognized that Morrison had talent, but sometimes they cluelessly deemed her focus on black life “narrow.”
“Beloved,” inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, who killed her young daughter to spare the girl the hell of slavery, solidified Morrison’s status as a major author. In 1988, “Beloved” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison, who is Greenfield-Sanders’ longtime friend, comes across as virtually flawless in this film. Don’t expect a penetrating character portrait.
Greenfield-Sanders also provides few details about Morrison’s post-“Beloved” writings and esteemed teaching work.
The film triumphs, however, as an admiring consideration of Morrison’s remarkable career and contributions to literature.
The non-Morrison interviewees Greenfield-Sanders has assembled make for an engaging and enlightening bunch as they sing Morrison’s praises.
Angela Davis was only 28 when Morrison convinced her to publish an autobiography, Davis recalls, praising Morrison’s instincts.
Poet Sonia Sanchez gets teary-eyed when describing black characters Morrison created.
Oprah Winfrey recalls acquiring Morrison’s phone number illicitly so she could discuss making “Beloved” into a movie.
Walter Mosley, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz and editor Robert Gottlieb also speak.
The most satisfying thoughts, however, come directly from Morrison. Possessing insight, warmth, humor, humanity and radiant confidence, she’s a spellbinding presence, whether she’s describing her grandfather’s multiple readings of the Bible as a “revolutionary act” (literacy was illegal for African-Americans in his day), or detailing how she solved a plot problem in “Beloved,” or revealing what makes a great carrot cake.
It’s an honor to spend time with her.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Starring: Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey
Directed by: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Note: The movie opens Friday at Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco; Kabuki 8, San Francisco; and Albany Twin, Albany