Documentary Releases: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019) - Reviewed

As Toni Morrison was scribbling words down on the sidewalk as a child, “fuck” was all it took for her to learn that words have power. Before she and her sister could finish the third letter, her mother erupted from the house, with a bucket of water and a push broom in tow. Morrison’s mother’s eruption from the house would be echoed and amplified by her daughter’s ascent into the literary paragon in the coming years. This is the story of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

The documentary opens with a montage of collage. We see scraps of images of Morrison’s face laid over each other, over and over. Some photos are of her younger, some older; it’s not organized chronologically, but rather discursively, and poetically, like Morrison’s work itself.

The documentary takes bits and pieces of interviews, transcripts, and news clippings to present Morrison as a writer who transcends race and gender all the while eschewing the white, male gaze.

The scenes and shots that are the most compelling are those that feature Morrison at her most pure, when speaking to the camera directly. We consistently presented with a character that, over the years, whether young, old, or middle-aged, speaks her mind confidently amidst a whole that’s normed against valuing her work. If Toni Morrison ever had weak moments, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders made sure to edit them all out. The result is a work that not only reifies the literary contributions of the author, but reifies excellence itself.

The supporting cast of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am are a collection of other authors and intellectuals who champion her work. From the cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, to Oprah Winfrey, to famed scholar David Carrasco (amongst others) the consensus is that Morrison is nothing short of a godsend, brought to Earth validate and elevate the human experience through her writing.

Like her non-existent moments of weakness, Morrison’s detractors are also marginalized in The Pieces I Am. Early (literary) criticism of her work, such as that from The New York Times Book Review is mentioned, but not given face time. Although this directorial decision results in less confrontation, it does allow the documentary to serve as more of a celebration of Morrison’s work, rather than a dramatization of it.

In addition to celebrating her work, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, approximates a personal connection with the author, one similar to what her written words do for her readers.

-Blake Pynnonen