Legendary novelist and recent American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal-winner Toni Morrison has brought some of the most complex characters to life on-page. Now she is telling her story, in her words, in the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” in theaters June 21.
The Magnolia Pictures-distributed* documentary is directed by longtime Morrison friend Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (HBO’s “The Black List”). Drawing on Morrison’s supreme storytelling skills, Greenfield-Sanders introduces viewers to the writer who was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. The film charts her growth into Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pulitzer Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Book Award, to name a few of her honors.
As she is on the page, Morrison, the author of 11 novels, is a master on camera. With humor and oftentimes brutal honesty, the author says she was inspired to write her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” because no one took a “little Black girl” seriously. “The assumption was that writers weren’t talking to me and that troubled me,” Morrison says. “I had to eliminate the White gaze…[so] I don’t have to have this White judgmental eye editing me, approving me.”
Morrison began her literary career as an editor at Knopf Publishing in the 1970s, introducing the voices of some of the country’s most influential Black leaders and thinkers of the time, such as Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara. “Navigating a White male world wasn’t interesting to me. I was interesting!” Morrison quips.
While working as an editor and writing Morrison was the single parent of two small sons. No matter how much was on her plate, Morrison says she knew from very early on the power of words. “Books are the first plane on which battles are fought,” Morrison says.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” features interviews with Davis, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Oprah Winfrey, who starred in and produced the feature film adaptation of Morrison’s “Beloved.” The love of her contemporaries and peers is also well-documented, beginning with the 48 Black authors who openly protested in 1988 for Morrison to be recognized with a national prize. “There are people put on this Earth so we can learn to walk upright and be human beings,” Sanchez says, emphasizing that Morrison does that for humanity with each of her books.
A clear believer in the importance of Black stories, Morrison never wavers in the documentary on why she tells the stories she tells. “Nobody could have loved as much as we did. Carried on as we did,” she says. That is enough of a reason for her celebrate the myriad of Blackness that exists in her stories, from the Pecolas to the Milkmans of the world.
Watch the official trailer for the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”:
*Piece has been corrected. Magnolia Pictures is the distributor, not the producer.