The new Toni Morrison documentary "The Pieces I Am" premiered in Washington, D.C., the day after Congress held an unprecedented hearing on the question of reparations.
As I listened to the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testify before Congress on the enduring toll of slavery on the black body, the black family and black opportunity in this country, I realized why filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders told the audience at the premiere "it's always the right time for Toni." To be haunted by the ghosts of the past, to live with and among them, is a world made possible by the mind and the language of Toni Morrison.
"The Pieces I Am" opens with Morrison's voice reading from the novel "Beloved" as scraps of her photographs are disassembled and assembled into completion. "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." At 88, Morrison remains a guiding force of our national conscience and a friend of its mind.
Morrison lives in my imagination at a higher plane than any other living writer, a Nobel laureate operating at the peak of language and moral clarity — a mythical, monumental deity of American letters. That enigmatic persona is partly of her making. As Greenfield-Sanders tells me, she has consciously avoided the public eye and maintains a fierce sense of privacy.
"You can't operate at her level without retaining some distance," he says. For lack of a better word, Greenfield-Sanders' new documentary "The Pieces I Am" demystifies the woman behind the icon.
Born Chloe Wofford in 1931, the author looks directly into the camera as she tells the story of her life — from her childhood in Lorain, Ohio, to juggling her career as an editor at Random House, a single mother, a teacher and a writer. Given her absence from my generation's digital public square, it is a gift to "see" Morrison through reflections from Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, the critic Hilton Als and the poet Sonia Sanchez among others.
Like any great commercial documentary, the film illuminates and entertains. It is a banquet of music, images, conversations and, of course, Morrison at its center talking directly to you, as luminescent, radiant and wise as you'd imagine.
I saw "The Pieces I Am" just as I've myself been rereading Morrison for the first time in 15 years. In February, Knopf released a collection of her essays and speeches titled "The Source of Self-Regard." Drawn from four decades of writings, it's the kind of collection one can return to over and over again. Wrapped in a light-pink cover with gold typography, each essay disentangles the same questions we're wrestling with in our public discourse today: inequality, white supremacy, sexism, migration and the role of artists in political life.
According to Greenfield-Sanders, it was an unplanned scheduling alignment between publisher and film distributor that made this an interdisciplinary season of return. As a reader, one could not ask for a better combination of sources for revisiting Morrison in 2019.
The 350-page collection traces the formation of the author's ideas, the breadth of her interests and her prodigious gift for language. Morrison unpacks the corrosive public and private pain of discrimination but always returns to her belief in the artist's ability to reimagine the world. In the opening essay "Peril" about the dangers of censorship, she writes, "certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice or fights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity."
I first encountered Morrison as a high school movie critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was assigned to review Winfrey's adaptation of "Beloved." My immigrant parents had settled outside Richmond in a small town where our curriculum largely excluded black writers, opting instead for a revisionist history of the Civil War as the "war of northern aggression."
Plantation slavery was conveniently glossed over in the haunted landscape of the former Confederate States of America. I dug up my earlier review in writing this essay. I described "Beloved" as "confusing," clearly lacking the historical awareness and the maturity to comprehend the source of my profound confusion. It was not until we were assigned "Beloved" in a political theory seminar at the University of Virginia that I began to grasp the American arc of injustice and the idea of moral reckoning and haunting.
With piercing language and extraordinary storytelling, Morrison forced readers to confront the depravity and terrorism of American slavery, shattering the English-language canon in the process. In breaking from what she describes as the existing "master narrative" of white, male writers, Morrison saw enslavement from a black mother's perspective while also crafting a singular ghost story.
In a section of "The Source of Self-Regard" dedicated to the craft of writing, Morrison explains how she'd set out to develop a language that was both "race-clotted and race-inflected" but also free from the existing architecture of "race." She writes, "I am deeply and personally involved in figuring out how to manipulate, mutate and control imagistic, metaphoric language in order to produce something that could be called race-specific race-free prose: literature that is free of the imaginative restraints that the racially inflected language at my disposal imposes on me."
In the documentary "The Pieces I Am" she recounts how as a professor at Princeton University she urged her writing students to get outside of their "own little lives" and to imagine lives of others. In an essay titled "Goodbye to All That: Race, Surrogacy and Farewell" she writes, "this effort to balance the demands of cultural specificity with those of artistic range is a condition, rather than a problem, for me. A challenge rather than a worry. A refuge rather than a refugee camp. Home territory, not foreign land."
It is a critical examination by Morrison herself on how to balance collective responsibility with creative autonomy at a time when the role of "women artists" or "black artists" is being revisited across mediums. Morrison explains that at the core of her artistic project is a desire to celebrate and luxuriate in her blackness without participating in the trap of America's "raced" imagination and the limitations that it creates for an artist.
It feels appropriate therefore that Greenfield-Sanders integrates so many visionary and pioneering black artists into his cinematic portrait. Eschewing the conventions of filmed biographies, the camera glides over paintings, photographs and illustrations as interviewees speak about Morrison's life. The episodes of her career are accompanied by Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration series, Kara Walker's plantation silhouettes and Gordon Parks' photographs of segregation. "The Pieces I Am" is an inspired and beautiful monument. That said, the film is best experienced in stereo - and in combination with reading Morrison's words. By diving into essays that marinate in each of the themes touched upon in the film, it becomes self-evident how her language is the ultimate "source of Self-Regard."
As one would expect, Toni Morrison is neither giving interviews nor appearing at screenings of the documentary film about her life. It is not and has never been her style. But Greenfield-Sanders says when she saw the finished film, she offered this appraisal of its subject: "I liked her."