Of the many tales told by the late Toni Morrison in the documentary about her life, the one that might stick out more than most is her discovery of the gift that would define her. She recalls her childhood, of seeing words growing up, like ‘cat’ or ‘hate’ (she almost forgot the ‘e’ to begin with) and scribbling them down in chalk outside her house. It was when she discovered a four-letter word that no child should really be saying that she got a reaction from her mother she wasn’t expecting, getting as far as ‘f’ and ‘u’ before being ordered to wash it away. It was at that point, the late author says, ‘I realised words had power’. This opening encapsulates everything about the infectious spirit and spark Morrison possessed and shared with the world, one that burns brightly throughout Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary about his good friend and one of the world’s most prolific authors of our time.
Whether you’re familiar with Morrison’s work or not, it won’t take long for the uninitiated to be drawn into the story of her life, as well as the ones she told. Beautifully presented with talking heads of close friends and fans alike (Oprah Winfrey’s story about calling the local fire department to track her down is brilliant), Greenfield-Sanders lets Morrison’s tale unfold like a good book with an exceptional storyteller at the centre of it. In between the various chapters of her going from college professor, to editor fo revered publisher Random House, to an esteemed writer, every momentous memory is accompanied with stunning imagery that lingers over Morrison’s infectious voice regaling in some truly incredible anecdotes.
The brief insight into her world is a joy to observe, with highlights like having to switch to mothermode when speaking to Muhammad Ali during the development of his biography, or demanding equal pay during her time at Random House being ones that’ll make your chest swell. Besides that though, the film does the same as Morrison did throughout her career by unabashedly shine a light on black culture and her will to ignore and at times rebuke the ‘white gaze’ that she was told at the start of her career to adapt and adhere to, lest she get lost behind reputable male authors.
Thankfully, as is present throughout the documentary, hers was a voice that never faded, one that expressed her confusion and almost amusement over the divide between black and white culture to the point it was laughable. Growing up in a town that thrived on the merging of families from all corners of the world, a girl that grew in a neighbourhood alongside Russian, Polish and Italian families would send home signs from ‘White’ and ‘Coloured’ bathrooms jokingly to her mother. As it turns out, words did have power after all, and by the end of The Pieces I Am, you’ll be so glad there was someone like Morrison to use them
Directed by: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders