Toni Morrison and Me
I was a freshman in college when I realized that Toni Morrison was a not only a big deal but an important part of literature. It wasn’t that it was my first time being exposed to her, it was the fact that I was at a private, predominantly white school (Denison University) taking a freshman English class named after her that focused on her work. After taking the class, I gained a deeper respect for the author because I had finally been exposed to her world that far surpassed the two books, “Song of Solomon” and “Sula,” I read in high school.
The film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, made me feel as if I was previously foreign to Toni Morrison and her contributions to the African American community. Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders did an amazing job of putting this introspective and commentary piece together about one of the greatest influences in literature. I got to know Toni Morrison as a writer, teacher, mother, award winner, and overall incredible human being. The documentary explores the early years of her life where her grandparents encouraged her and other children in her family to get as much education as they could. Her grandparents were alive during a time where it was forbidden for Black people to receive an education. This was the foundation that would inspire one of the world’s greatest writers.
To understand her affinity at an early age gives the audience an understanding of how Morrison became such a distinguished storyteller. At one point she described how she loved books so much that when she worked in a library, she spent more time reading the books than doing the work. They naturally promoted her to a managerial role.
Howard University & Random House
The Pieces I Am traveled through Morrison’s college roots as she attended the infamous Howard University where, like most graduates, she discovered the true value of being Black and educated. She felt free in her natural habitat amongst other intellectuals and creatives that shared a love for education. After her time at Howard, the film discusses her start at Random House as an editor. This was where the start of her literary career began.
There are so many key moments in this documentary that it’s not hard to see how Toni Morrison became a Pulitzer winner and why many influential figures in Black history have looked up or desired to work with her. In fact, it’s noted how both Muhammad Ali (The Greatest: My Own Story) and Angela Davis (Angela Davis: An Autobiography) had a huge amount of respect for her, allowing her to write their autobiographies.
Morrison set a standard in the writing industry early on with her works “The Black Book”, “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye.” The film noted how Toni Morrison’s novels transcended race yet encouraged people of color to embrace their melanin and not be afraid or ashamed of the skin they were born in. In fact, “The Black Book” has been described as an emotional exploration of Blackness.
While watching the film, I wondered why we had to wait until now to receive a Toni Morrison documentary. After all, she had some of her biggest moments in the 90s and previous years but the film also addresses that Toni Morrison is a very private person. When I spoke with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, he explained how there were a few moments while filming Toni Morrison that they all had to hold their breath because what she was saying was so powerful and captivating. It was hard for him to do cuts during editing because of all the great footage from her interview.
Talents and activists that were featured via interview included Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Farah Griffin, and Oprah Winfrey. They all praised the innate skills, inspiration, and hard work of Morrison. One of the most interesting stories came from Oprah Winfrey when she mentioned how she called the fire station in the neighborhood where Morrison stayed to get in contact with her to do the movie Beloved. The excitement in the voices and faces of the interviewees show the importance of Toni Morrison, especially Sonia Sachez who had emotional final words at the conclusion of her interview.
During Morrison’s interviews, she explained how she developed some of her books. The way she describes her influences for her work are interesting and visually beautiful, much like her storytelling. Speaking on Beloved, a novel that originated from the Margaret Garner story, Morrison recalled her being out one day looking at the docks when she saw a woman in a hat by the river who suddenly disappeared. This is what sparked the beginning of the amazing Beloved novel that made Oprah a huge admirer.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is not only recommended, it is necessary. To quote Paula Giddins from the film “If you don’t understand the history of African American women, you don’t understand America.” The documentary released in theatres on June 28th, 2019.
Photos: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/ Magnolia Pictures