Writers have appeared on film for about as long as it has existed — you can find silent footage of Leo Tolstoy cutting wood and Mark Twain wandering across Thomas Edison's estate, seemingly caught off-guard by a medium that didn't allow speech. Yet the actual work of writing is hard to capture on screen. In fictional films, writers tend to divide their time between filling wastebaskets and ashtrays. In documentaries, their lives are reduced to a catalog of best-seller lists and talk-show appearances. The interior world — the majority of a writer's life — remains elusive.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am breaks through the usual barriers surrounding a literary life by acknowledging the many facets of its subject, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved and Song of Solomon. It's a memoir of Morrison's life as well as a re-creation of the times she's lived through.
Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, an accomplished photographer as well as a filmmaker, has made previous films about creatives from performance artists to porn stars, as well as a near-definitive portrait of Lou Reed. He uses interviews with Morrison's friends and admirers (Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Oprah Winfrey), shot against a grey background that seems both warm and neutral, but the author herself dominates the narrative with her own stories. Throughout the film, the screen is filled with a rapid-fire barrage of portraits — drawings, paintings, illustrations from Morrison's novels or covers from various editions — as well as historical art and stylized renderings (a portrait of a slave revealed behind George Washington). Portraiture is a recurring theme in Greenfield-Sanders' films, and he uses this fast-paced collage to offer many faces of Morrison, keeping her present even as the film speeds through several decades of cultural history.
In an early scene, Morrison recalls her early love of words and her fondness, as a child, for copying them onto the sidewalk in chalk. When a four-letter one she didn't understand sent her mother into a panic, she knew she was dealing with a very powerful medium. That sense of the strength in words never left her. While raising two sons as a single mother working as an editor at Random House, she wrote her first books early in the morning hours. As an editor, she supervised some the most important black writers of the 1970s (including Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and — posthumously — George Jackson), hands-on to the point of setting up her authors' signing tables. Morrison even shepherded Muhammad Ali through a book tour, winning his respect only after she determined that she needed to strike a stern maternal pose.
According to the film, Morrison's 1974 anthology of African-American history, The Black Book, was a turning point. Her writing, Morrison recalls in the film, took off when she stopped assuming that she needed the approval of white readers — and that discovery gave her the courage to stop editing and devote her time solely to her own work. The result, as Morrison's readers know, was liberating. Defying the traditional strictures by which black writers are judged, she addressed her own experiences and created narratives about women whose lives had largely remained absent from literature.
Her success was gradual but gratifying. In 1988, an open letter signed by 48 prominent black writers criticized the literary establishment for its failure to recognize Morrison's work. A few months later, the Pulitzer Prize committee responded by giving their award to Beloved, a recognition compounded in 1993 when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Achieving both literary posterity and popular success (four of her books have been selected for Oprah's Book Club), Morrison appears in The Pieces I Am as a serious and reflective figure, but one with well-deserved contentment. (Although open in her recollections, she clearly holds some things in reserve, noting that Chloe Wofford — her name at birth — doesn't appear in documentaries.) A powerful presence on film as in literature, she tells her story with openness and an admirable sense of self-confidence. Asked by a reporter why she thinks the Nobel committee chose her, she gives a straight and honest answer: "I think I write well."