“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” brings interviews with and commentary on the celebrated African American novelist to the M.V. Film Center starting Friday, July 5.
After initial years of neglect, Morrison finally began to receive much-deserved accolades for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” in 1988. Now 88, Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Edited by Timothy Greenfield, the documentary begins with Morrison’s recollections of her childhood. “My grandfather bragged all the time that he had read through the Bible five times cover to cover,” she says. She learned to read from her sister.
“The only way I own what I know is by writing,” Morrison says. Initially she was criticized for not writing about white people. Activist Angela Davis observes that at the time the literary canon was based on the white male gaze. Morrison did not write exclusively for the white reader.
The author was raised in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town on Lake Erie, in a very poor, mixed community of immigrants. Her father worked in a steel mill, and there was no pressure to get ahead. Family and health were all that mattered. Morrison read all the time, and worked in a local library before she attended college at Howard University, where she majored in English. Training to be a teacher, she earned an M.A. at Cornell University, and taught at Texas Southern University and Howard. Joining Random House in 1965, she became its first black woman senior editor of fiction, helping bring much-needed exposure to black writers. She left publishing to teach in 1983, and to spend more time writing, joining Princeton University’s Creative Writing program in 1989 and remaining until her retirement in 2006.
Morrison’ first novel, “The Bluest Eye” (1970), generated controversy for its depiction of rape, incest, and pedophilia, and it was banned in many Ohio schools as pornographic. Her most celebrated novel, “Beloved,” was published in 1987, and a film of the same name, starring Oprah Winfrey, followed. It is the story of an actual African American slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her 2-year-old daughter rather than see the child subjected to slavery. Two novels, “Jazz” (1992) and “Paradise” (1997), followed as part of the “Beloved” trilogy, about love and African American history. “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved — the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you,” Morrison said in a 1993 Washington Post article.
The litany of Morrison’s accomplishments, as outlined in “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is important to recite, because of the long and continuing history of American racism and the way it affected her reception. The film spends much time trained on Morrison’s remarkable face, with appropriate amounts of time spent on archival material and interviews with respected critics and colleagues. Viewers who watch “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” should find themselves inspired to read or reread her many powerful books.