Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Morrison on her life and career

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I must confess that the works of Toni Morrison, a great African American female author who sadly passed away two months ago, have been a glaring blind spot in my reading list. Although I came to know a bit about her fifth novel “Beloved” through its 1998 film adaptation directed by Jonathan Demme, I have somehow never touched any of her novels, and her first novel “The Bluest Eye”, which was recommended by an acquaintance of mine a few years ago, is still waiting to be read along with heaps of untouched books on my bookshelf (Shame on me!).

Because of my regretful ignorance, I was a bit nervous before watching documentary film “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”, but the documentary turns out to be not only informative but also insightful enough to engage and touch me. As listening to Morrison as well as other notable figures willing to talk about her immense influence on American literature, the documentary gives us an intimate and respectful presentation of Morrison’s life and career, and it will certainly make you more interested in reading her novels.

Mainly revolving around the interview clips of Morrison, the documentary lets her talk about many things including the personal memories of her early life. She was born in a small town in Ohio, 1931, and she still remembers well when she began to learn how to write at the age of 3 thanks to her cousin. At one point, she reminisces about when she and her cousin innocently attempted to write a certain slang and then got scolded by her mother for that, and that was how she became more aware of the power and influence of words.

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After her high school graduation, Morrison went to Howard University in Washington D.C. and then moved onto the graduate school at Cornell University in New York state. Shortly after her graduation school period, she worked as an English teacher for a while, but then, in 1965, she got hired as an editor at L. W. Singer in Syracuse, New York, which was a textbook division of Random House.

A few years later, she came to work as a new editor at Random House in New York City, and she happened to be at the right time and place. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, the social and cultural position of African Americans became a lot more prominent than before, and Morrison was surely a right person who could draw a number of interesting African American figures ranging from Angela Davis to Muhammad Ali, who had a small amusing episode with Morrison when she made it very clear to him that she was not someone he could ignore at all.

While busily working as a teacher, an editor, and, above all, a mother to her two young sons, Morrison gradually came to draw attention as a new writer in the town as publishing her first novel “The Bluest Eye”, which was then followed by “Sula” and “Song of Solomon”. The latter won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and its considerable critical and commercial success eventually prompted her to become a full-time writer.

The documentary examines each of these three books of hers in terms of themes and details, and a number of notable figures such as Walter Mosley and Robert Gottlieb tell us how significant these three books were at that time. While there were already a number of notable African American writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison before her, Morrison directly explored African American life and history via female perspective, and that was certainly a ground-breaking achievement to say the least.

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However, it took some more time for her to be recognized fully for her growing contribution to American literature. When Morrison published “Sula”, critics praised her book while condescendingly pointing out her ‘limited’ perspective, and this racist and misogynous trend was continued even when she published her fifth novel “Beloved”, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. When she subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, some people openly complained and grumbled that she won the prize mainly for political correctness, probably because, in their prejudiced viewpoint, she did not deserve to be regarded as someone equal to a few American Nobel Prize laureate writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who are all incidentally Caucasian males, by the way.

After receiving the Nobel Prize, Morrison kept going on as publishing five more novels, and her status in American literature continued to grow. Several years ago, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and that was just one of numerous prestigious recognitions she got during her later years. Although she would pass away not long after being interviewed for the documentary, she looks brimming with life and personality on the screen nonetheless, and it goes without saying that she surely lived her life well.

Freely flowing from one moment to another along with Morrison, the documentary gradually generates a consistent narrative flow under the skillful direction of director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and he did a good job of mixing his interview clips with a bunch of various artworks and archival materials. In short, “Toni Morrison: The Piece I Am” presents its human subject with deep respect and affection, and you will surely appreciate it that if you have admired Morrison’s works.

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