Film Review: ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’ Is a Fascinating Examination of Black Art

A few years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought much needed attention to an ongoing problem in the film industry. With a lack of diversity throughout all levels of the filmmaking process, the recipients of the art form’s highest honors often reflected a largely white-male clubhouse. As evidenced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ illuminating new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am“, this problem has not been exclusive to cinema. In profiling one of the greatest literary minds of our time, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” engagingly reminds audiences of the inherent politics in how we value art and honor artists.

Indeed, while Toni Morrison is well known today as a Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, her journey towards that level of recognition was filled with many obstacles. From her humble childhood in the working class Lorain, Ohio to her breakthrough as a self-proclaimed “editor who writes,” she was always aware of society’s negative perceptions of persons of color, especially black women. As she vowed to explore the harmful effects of these racist views and reclaim the narrative, Morrison and her work courted controversy. The story of her life therefore provides fascinating insight into American society.

Like Raoul Peck’s blistering “I Am Not Your Negro” before it, the film frames Morrison’s literary oeuvre within the context of African-American history. But whereas Peck channeled James Baldwin’s righteous fury with a scorched earth approach, Greenfield-Sanders’s direction is more measured and meditative. While the film perhaps relies too heavily on “talking head” interviews, there are poignant segments smattered throughout which examine the harmful cultural imagery that affected Morrison’s work.

That archival footage and photography certainly adds invaluable social context, but the film’s greatest asset is Morrison herself. Through her narration and frequent on camera interviews, there is a conversational quality to the film. And with all her thoughtful wisdom, she is a testament to the resilience and humanity that she aimed to show to the world. Unlike the image of the uncivilized, mad black women that American society had long propagated, Morrison and the film itself are intellectually stimulating and utterly refined.

That intellect and sophistication plays out intriguingly in the ways Morrison and her work became criticized for its representation of blackness. Specifically, the film points out how her early work was maligned for being too black, while during the height of her success, dissenting voices unfavorably compared her portrayals of African-American life to her contemporaries. Yet through it all, she persevered. As emphasized by the film’s title, she clearly excelled at the three key pieces that make Toni Morrison – her blackness, her womanhood and her extraordinary talent.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” opens June 21 in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)