THE PIECES I AM (Dir. Timothy Greenfield Sanders, 119 min., USA, 2019)
BY JASMIN ALVAREZ Few authors have succeeded in capturing, with incomparable eloquence, the most poignant and heart-rending episodes of black history the way that acclaimed author Toni Morrison has in her haunting and deeply humane novels, for which she has been awarded both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize. “If there’s life on Mars, they’re reading Toni Morrison to learn what it means to be human,” muses Columbia University professor Farah Griffin in The Pieces I Am, an intimate and deeply-affecting tribute documentary honoring Morrison’s life and literary milestones.
Critically-acclaimed portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders elegantly frames Morrison in a series of highly personal and revealing interviews. The film alternates between the narration of her biography and insightful discussions about the construction and criticisms of her most controversial novels (chief among them The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and her lesser-known, yet insanely powerful, curated anthology of black history, The Black Book).
Morrison’s story begins in Ohio as she offers a window onto her family’s history and her upbringing as a working-class woman, reliving various transformational moments that would serve as the origins of her fascination with words and her awareness of their profound influence. The Pieces I Am then propels us forward with film footage of some of her life’s most monumental events: her trip to Stockholm in the 90s to accept the Nobel Peace Prize and bask in the reflected glory of an exceptionally-stylish Swedish after-party; her experiences as an editor at Random House in the 70s, where she worked closely with activist and academic, Angela Davis, and penned her first novel, The Bluest Eye; her book-tour with Muhammad Ali, whose biography she also edited and published; and her time as a professor at Princeton University.
Morrison also pauses to candidly unveil the more sensitive and vulnerable moments of her literary career, such as the early criticisms which claimed that her work would only ever be recognized and well-received if she expanded toward writing “white literature”—a criticism which, for years afterward, spurred her devotion to penning exclusively black stories that transcended the narrow scope of the “white gaze” to tell stories centering around the experiences of black women.
Interspersed between the narrative of Morrison’s life are observations, praise, and insights from Morrison’s closest colleagues, peers, and long-time friends like Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, Hilton Als, and Oprah Winfrey—who zealously produced, and starred in, the film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved in 1998. Fittingly, this moving and meticulously-crafted meditation on Morrison’s life culminates with the iteration of Sula’s closing words: “She. Is. Loved. She. Is. Loved.” Amen to that.