In Movies & TV Reviews

Toni Morrison in "The Pieces I Am."

Toni Morrison documentary illuminates an extraordinary life

Like a rainbow, Toni Morrison spanned entire spectrums during her 88 years of life. She is known for being a Nobel Prize-winning writer of myriad beautiful books, some of which appear on required college reading as well as banned books lists, but she was also a gifted, fastidious editor for Random House.

She spent hours alone every morning with just her yellow pad of paper, pencil and the rising sun, and yet she was also very much a people-person deeply involved with her family, friends and coworkers; a woman who loved a good party. Through storytelling, Morrison was just as able to bring a reader to elation as she was to despondency.

And because of her expanse, she shared generations of what it was like to be black in America – usually from the viewpoint of black women, but not always – and her truth resonated, and continues to resonate today, with not just women and African-Americans, but all of humanity.

"Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," which screens again on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at the Rivoli Theatre during the Milwaukee Film Festival, allows us to experience the Toni Morrison beyond the page, the woman who is a mother, student, teacher, worker, dreamer, social justice warrior and friend to many, including those who provide commentary in the documentary such as Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Sonia Sanchez and her book editor Robert Gottlieb.

Seeing Morrison literally and figuratively larger than life in this documentary which was made prior to her death in August is incredibly powerful, but also wistful. Seeing all that Morrison was also points out the depth of what we've lost.

Her impact on the dominated-by-white-men literary world was massive and although she was sometimes ignored, unfairly reviewed and told to write for a larger (meaning a whiter) audience, she stayed true to her vision.

"I spent my entire life writing to ensure the 'white gaze' was not the prominent gaze in my books,'" Morrison said in the film.

Morrison is quoted as once saying "If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it." And she did just that. Through her novels, particularly "Sula," "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved," she shares previously untold stories of black women and what it really felt like to be them. Many important books were written about the horrors of slavery, lynchings and other heinous acts of hatred, but Morrison shares another piece of the black experience: the internal pain caused by racism.

Morrison, who grew up in Lorain, Ohio on an integrated block that was so peaceful she found it boring as a teenager, went on to graduate from Howard University and Cornell University. Both experiences disappointed her in some ways. At Howard, an esteemed African American university, a professor forbid her to write about the black characters in Shakespeare's plays and she was invited to join a black sorority for "light skinned" African-American students.

Through the candidness of the documentary, Morrison's confidence, one of her most inspiring qualities, really shines through. When asked why she thought she won the Nobel Prize for Literature by a journalist she responded that it was because she was a really good writer. Later she unflinchingly states that racism is a problem of white people and we not only need to figure out what to do about it, but also take her/black people out of it.

"The Pieces I Am" confirms that Morrison's life contributions were shape-shifting for women, particularly African-American women. It also illuminates that when someone like Morrison is able to share her absolute truth, everyone benefits from it. Like Sonia Sanchez states in the film, "If there is life on Mars, they're reading Toni Morrison to find out what it means to be human."


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