Where there once stood the pillar of the white, male gaze in literature, Toni Morrison exchanged her chisel for a sledgehammer and there, knocked it down. The author, editor, and icon has amassed a following worthy of her extraordinary verve. A towering figure in the world of fiction, Morrison’s titles include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved, among many others. She is a Nobel Prize winner in literature and, will have you know, she makes the best carrot cake you will ever taste.
It’s a wonder, then, that it has taken so long for Morrison’s story to receive the documentary treatment. But if audiences have waited long, it’s for good reason. Like Morrison’s famous carrot cake, the ingredients in her story are all blended together so perfectly to create a decadent, contemplative experience surrounding one of America’s greatest authors.
Directed by Morrison’s personal friend Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and distributed by Magnolia Pictures upon premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am chronicles the author’s life from Ohio, upstate New York, New York City, Stockholm, and back again. But acting more than just a retrospective on Morrison’s life, fellow writers tackle the importance of her voice and the stories she preserves in her pages.
In Morrison’s work, there is no pretext. There are no cliff notes for white readers, little explanation of vernacular, there is only story and characters who are given dignity where history may have robbed them. Morrison’s writing serves to deconstruct a notion that readers — or anyone who processes cultural artifacts — too often forgets: that our perception of what makes a story valuable has long been generated by the omnipresent white, male gaze. Her narratives are of a Black America crossed out in history books, and her characters are offered empathy and complexity in the place of antiquated caricature.
Morrison’s work was revolutionary. At the inception of her career, when the Civil Rights Movement transitioned into the Black Power Movement, Morrison lead her own revolution through words. Working with noted activists like Angela Davis, Morrison balanced her growing iconography with a particular frame of humility. When reminded that one of her books, The Bluest Eye, had been banned in schools while her other various works were said to possibly “incite riots,” Morrison simply responded, “Now how powerful is that?”
And it is this power that is so stunningly examined by the various figures gathered to pay homage in The Pieces I Am. Revolutionizing the lens by which readers understand her novels and the narratives she communicates through such illustrious language, the documentary poses as more of a meditation than a reconciliation or revalidation of Morrison’s greatest hits.
In front of the camera, Morrison is in equal measure wry and wise. The overwhelming praise for her character and talent is further confirmed by every voice heard, explicating on their attachment to her work and what it means to them. If there is any drawback, it is the quality of its ruminative state. At times edging to the more repetitive course that documentaries uplifting their subjects can do, sharp edits and thoughtful commentary serve to reposition the documentary on a preferred path. It is difficult to fault The Pieces I Am for avoiding analysis of Morrison’s relevant failings because there likely aren’t that many to address in the first place.
Morrison has replaced that ivory pillar and stands resolutely to transform how audiences consume literature and culture. Relating such revolutionary work, Greenfield-Sanders examines Morrison the author without forgoing her quiet rebelliousness that seems almost too commonplace or contemporary to recognize any past importance. The result is a luscious, literary tour, almost as sweet as one of Morrison’s own carrot cakes.