I am a millennial Black woman who was heavily influenced by a grandmother who was an avid reader. She made sure that I got a great sampling of the horror and science fiction books she loved so much. This included Beloved by Toni Morrison. In school, we read snippets of her novels as examples of good, descriptive writing. Then, I began to devour her novels on my own. Her way with words, painting a picture so vividly without having so much as an article out of place intrigued me. She was one of the first people I tried to emulate in my youth as I journeyed toward becoming a writer. All of this is why watching her documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was much more than a viewing experience. It was a peek into the life of a person who, for many women like me, wrote the books that shaped our girlhood.
There is something about hearing Morrison tell the stories behind the books that intrigued me. Each book was like a milestone in her life. I loved seeing her reach back into memory and share a new side of her that eventually led to a novel. Her voice over the photos and video worked like a picture book about everyone Black girl’s favorite author. She spares few details. The scene where she describes the death of her father is quite moving. She eventually leads up to the writing of Song of Solomon. Hearing this connection adds a whole new layer of interpretation to the novel. In fact, her explanation of how the stories were born and what she intended for them all added a little something to the message. I do intend to go back and read each one again, especially The Bluest Eye.
The Early Years are Full of Inspiration
By far my favorite parts of the story are when she opens up about her struggle to maintain home and family while writing. So many black women writers, myself included, can relate to staying up late to finish a chapter or jotting bits of inspiration down on slips of paper to be typed up later. Morrison also described sitting at her desk at work to finish a chapter or working from home with the door open so that the kids can run on when they needed something. The story about how she got the job at Random House was heart-wrenching. I felt her pain at having to leave her kids behind while she went to go make a living and seized her dreams. All of it is so inspirational. It gives that struggling writer parent out there something to relate to, to motivate us.
This documentary captures and holds the attention as it respectfully tells the stories of a living legend. Some documentaries try hard to share these same stories, but they end up coming off as a two-hour obituary. Sure, this person did so many great things, but they are not dead. Director Timothy-Greenfield Sanders works against this documentary trap by using little tricks like juxtaposing Morrison’s telling of a story with that of friends, colleagues, and scholars. For example, she talks about Beloved and shares that she got a call from Oprah about the book. This is after we hear from Oprah herself. In this way, it feels like we are getting two sides of a story and not one person analyzing the life’s worth of the other.
In fact, this entire documentary feels like we are sitting with Morrison as she goes through the scrapbooks and photo albums of her life. At times, she seems to be coming to some new conclusions and at others, she is just sitting with a memory that has processed long ago, but for some reason still affects her. The whole experience is intimate and feels as though she is telling the stories to me and me alone as we pour over the clips and photos of her life.
In any event, we are taking part as Toni Morrison shares pieces of herself with the audience. With me. If you are a fan, you will feel honored to sit with such an iconic figure as she tells us the story behind her stories. The structure is not linear but seems to follow the major milestones like each of her major novels. In this way, Morrison uses The Pieces I Am to bring up all the little known and the widely received information only to drop it all at the audiences’ feet. Her responsibility ends there. She then moves on to the next bit.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am premiered at Sundance 2019.
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Jonita Davis is a writer, mother, a certified nerd, and writer of Black Girl Nerds. Davis is a critic and journalist. She has been writing for 13 years about the way pop culture and politics affect our lives as parents, women, black women, nerds, and people of this planet.