Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The palpable passion of poet Sonia Sanchez and media guru Oprah Winfrey notwithstanding, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary homage to the great writer Toni Morrison is a somewhat stolid affair. Comprehensive, for sure, it feels, at its end, overlong and surprisingly restrained, given the towering achievements of its subject. Still, there is much to recommend here, even if Morrison deserves a more rousing tribute.
Sanchez and Winfrey are just two of the many interviewees in the film, all of them dwarfed by Morrison, herself, whose own words form the backbone of the narrative. She walks us through the details of her life and career, explaining her family history and how she first became an editor and then celebrated author (though she seems equally proud of her reputation as a sublime baker, and why not?). Born Chloe Wofford in 1931, she adopted her saint’s name (Anthony) as Toni and then took a new last name from her six-year marriage to Harold Morrison, father of her two children. A professor at Howard University in the 1960s, she applied for an editing job at a New York publisher that was eventually bought by Random House, which kept her on as executive editor.
Indeed, beyond her own powerful books, Morrison’s other great contribution to this world (in addition to her carrot cake) is how she has mentored many other writers along their own paths to success. Selfless and hard-working, she is also charming and gregarious, with friends and supporters from all walks of life. Her 1993 Nobel Prize (which more than made up for her egregious lack of a National Book Award) – one of only 14 given to a woman, so far – marked a pinnacle in her career, though by no means the end of it, as she has remained very active since, a giant among American authors. If Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List), doing his best to honor Morrison in all her glory, can’t quite deliver the electric paean his subject merits, he nevertheless allows enough of her voice to come through to make Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am well worth watching.