By Shani R. Friedman
When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she was the first black woman of any nationality to accomplish such a feat. But as demonstrated by the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by her longtime friend Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart), Morrison’s life is about far more than accolades and book sales. The documentary has a warm and spirited subject at its center and it’s a portrait of the now-88-year-old that fans and new readers will find rich, fascinating and compelling, enhanced by hours of interviews with Morrison, Walter Mosely, Fran Lebowitz, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey and more.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, she dropped her first name because teachers constantly mispronounced it. She chose “my saint’s name” and Morrison was her married name. As a young girl growing up in Depression-era Lorain, Ohio, words were significant and meaningful for her. Her grandfather often told people he’d read the Bible front to back five times, and as a child she’d wondered why he hadn’t read anything else. During her grandfather’s youth in the South, it was illegal for him to read and doing so was a revolutionary act. Morrison’s sisters taught her how to read when she was three. As a child there was a day she saw a word and wanted to write it on the sidewalk with chalk. She’d gotten as far as “F” and “U” when “my mother came running out. She yelled and told us we had to clean it up, but she didn’t explain why,” she recalled with a laugh. “I learned that words have power.”
Morrison was a divorced mother of two and working as an editor at Random House when she wrote her first book, The Bluest Eye in 1970. The inspiration for the book had been a conversation she’d had as a girl with her friend about the existence of God. Her friend had told her she didn’t believe in God because she’d been praying for two years for blue eyes and it hadn’t happened. Morrison thought about the pain her friend had to be in “to think that the master narrative is white and you’re not it.” In crafting the novel, the plot of which she laid out entirely on its first page, she said “I hadn’t seen books [about black people] that didn’t have codes, that didn’t have explanations. ‘How does a little girl learn self-loathing?’ Critic Hilton Als explained of Morrison’s books, “the white world was peripheral, if it existed at all”. For her it was a freeing to not “have to have the white judgmental eye approving of me.”
Arguably the book that changed her life in countless ways, Beloved, was published in 1987. When it failed to win Morrison The National Book Award, 48 black critics and writers, including Maya Angelou, wrote a deeply-felt protest letter in January 1988 that was published in the New York Times. The statement challenged the lack of national or international acknowledgment Morrison had yet to receive from her literary peers in the awards community. Coincidentally, it had been the Times that had early on damned Morrison with faint praise in a review, writing that the author was “far too talented” to limit herself to only “the black side of provincial American life.” Two months after the op-ed, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize. Writer Fran Lebowitz, who used to come over to Morrison’s Random House office and smoke (and was encouraged by the higher ups to ease up on her visits so as not to distract Morrison) was one of the people she invited with her to Stockholm and Lebowitz fondly spoke of the terrific time they all had.
Morrison saw her fortunes and level of fame change dramatically when Oprah selected Morrison’s novels for her book club beginning in 1996. As the talk-show host explained, “In all my years of the book club I chose her books four times. With a book club you get people to trust and then, ‘BAM!’, hit ‘em with Toni Morrison!” But perhaps the most cherished moment in her career is when she found out that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had banned her novel Paradise in the state’s prisons. She framed the letter and hangs it proudly in her house.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is now playing in New York at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
For more on the film and where to get tickets, go to https://www.tonimorrisonfilm.com/