‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ pays homage to an indelible life of words

Timothy Greenfield Sanders/Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

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“It’s that powerful?” exclaims Toni Morrison as she discusses her relationship with the written word. Over a literary career lasting half a century, Morrison has crafted words that have opened readers’ eyes to the power of literature. From “The Bluest Eye” to “Song of Solomon” and “Sula,” her unapologetic works have provided a unifying force that is capable of crossing even the heated boundaries surrounding racial discourse.

It is with this notion in mind that director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders structures biographical documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” Greenfield-Sanders uses Morrison’s story as a testament to both the boundaries created and the freedom given by words. In the film, these words come from Morrison herself, her close friends (including political activist Angela Davis) and several of her admirers (such as Columbia University professor Farah Griffin).

Greenfield-Sanders includes interviews with these people and Morrison herself, all of whom bring her life into color by flipping and reading through the unwritten pages of her story. It is their words that provide the context needed to bridge the distance between viewers and Morrison. The inclusion of memorabilia, both physical and intangible, serves a similar function in the film: The historically accurate artwork and music orient the audience’s perception of different events in Morrison’s life, and the photographs of her loved ones provide a visual connection to the pieces she is.

Together, these components follow her journey toward discovering and unleashing the potential for literature to enact social and political change. Specifically the film explores how, during the Civil Rights Movement, Morrison felt empowered to join the fight. “What can I do where I am?” Morrison remembers urging herself. She discovered the solution: “I’m an editor, and I’m opening people’s eyes with words. … It would be my job to publish the voices, the books, the ideas of African Americans, and that would last,” she states.

Morrison’s honest storytelling in the film beautifully showcases the determination and courage Black women need in a prejudiced world. As the film demonstrates, many of the obstacles she faced were rooted in social segregation, gender inequality in the workforce and the ostracization of Black writers and readers. As an editor and author, Morrison overcame these barriers by opening gateways for other Black female writers, such as Davis, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara. Through these intentional choices, Morrison reinvented literary norms. As one of her friends claims in the film, “(she) completely destroyed the binary notion of Black writers being either Black writers writing for Black communities about Black subjects or Black writers being postracial.”

The film also takes time to explore some of Morrison’s most loved works and the thought process that went behind them. Audiences, for instance, will be able to gain an insightful political perspective on the reason why she chose to write about a Black woman in “Beloved” — and not the usual trope of a Black man breaking the chains of slavery. Her observations resonate from heart to paper, and it is clear from hearing them that she has a profoundly humanistic connection with the world around her.

The documentary has a similarly personal connection with Morrison’s life story and humanizes her through relating her struggles and endeavors. It focuses on her family, explaining how she avidly wrote her first novel in the car. As a single working mother with two sons living in a white man’s world, she didn’t have the capacity to do it anywhere else. Yet it is in this thornbush situation that Morrison bloomed and flourished. In 1993, she received the Nobel Prize in literature.

In the film, Oprah Winfrey declares that Morrison’s work captures “the essence of what it means to be human.” It’s a standard that the film reciprocates: “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” closely captures the essence of the long life Morrison has lived, is still living and, through the power of words, will live forever.

Contact Cameron Opartkiettikul at copartkiettikul @dailycal.org.