Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am: No Movement in the Margins, by David Bax
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens with a crude but lovely sort of paper cut-out animation, a living collage that gradually builds the face of the film’s subject. This hand-made, organic collage effect–alluding to the pieces of the title–is, disappointingly, just about the only bit of unexpected filmmaking Greenfield-Sanders attempts.
What follows is, for the most part, a straightforward biographical documentary recounting Morrison’s career book by book. But Greenfield-Sanders is specifically interested in detailing Morrison’s placement in the legacy of American literature and the ways her gender and race have made that frustratingly difficult for others to agree on.
Morrison has plenty to say on these subjects and The Pieces I Am benefits from that. Her lengthy and lively dissections of her own life and work–as well as how it’s been received–prove that she’s not only a great writer but a great orator as well. She has a voice custom-made to read her own work; the passages in which she does so double as persuasive advertisements to go out and buy every one of her books.
Whether you’ve read her novels or not (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only read Beloved), The Pieces I Am provides context that’s alarming both because of the obtuseness of the white establishment of the time and because of the implication that not much has changed over the course of her nearly half-century career. Privilege is almost definitively described when Morrison discusses the nature of many negative reviews: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person.” There’s no other way to describe the ridiculousness of her being accused of narrowness for writing only about black people. And how ignorant do you have to be to slam Beloved, a book about slaves, for taking a negative view of white people? And yet Morrison knew that how she wrote about black lives and experiences would be jarring to some. Perhaps the most celebrated novel by a black American author up to that point was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But Morrison questions, “Invisible to whom?”
Morrison, a proud Midwestern American, is not writing for a white audience but for the black readers so accustomed to a literature not directed at them. Though Morrison’s fiction work, as described in The Pieces I Am, is more poetic and psychological than agenda-driven, she is always evoking the painful racism–both external and internalized–that has defined too much of her readership’s lives.
All of that, I must admit, is more a description of The Pieces I Am than an analysis of it. The film resists analysis in its essayistic plainness. Though Morrison’s writing is alive–jumping, soaring and diving deep–Greenfield-Sanders’ film lays flat on the surface.