Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am shows the makings of a literary great

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Toni Morrison

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

What struck me most about the documentary about Toni Morrison was the segment featuring her receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

It was a regal event held in Stockholm, which was characterized by one of her contemporaries as: “the Nobel committee needed the presence of Morrison, a celebrated Black, female writer, as much as Morrison revered the recognition.” This was because before Morrison, mostly old, white men had been awarded the same honor.

The documentary offers an artful and intimate meditation on the life and works of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize winner. From her childhood in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, to ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali, from the front lines with Angela Davis to her own riverfront writing room, Toni Morrison leads an assembly of her peers, critics and colleagues on an exploration of race, America, history, and the human condition as seen through the prism of her own literature.

Inspired to write because no one took a “little Black girl” seriously, Morrison reflects on her lifelong deconstruction of the master narrative. Woven together with a rich collection of art, history, literature, and personality, the film includes discussions about her many critically acclaimed works, including novels “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” and “Song of Solomon;” her role as an editor of iconic African-American literature; and her time teaching at Princeton University.

The delightful literary great and activist Sonia Sanchez recounts the protest of 48 Black writers shortly after James Baldwin’s death in 1987, which posited the reality that Morrison hadn’t been awarded any major literary prize, even though her work showed “what it was to be Black and human—showing Black men and women in roles that weren’t subservient.” The writers included Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman, Amiri Baraka and Henry Louis Gates, among others.

Per the New York Times, “Described by its authors as a tribute to Ms. Morrison, and written partly in the form of an open letter to her, the statement will be published in The New York Times Book Review of Jan. 24.

In a companion piece, the poet June Jordan and the critic Houston A. Baker Jr., who also joined in the tribute to Ms. Morrison, deplore the failure of James Baldwin to receive either award. Mr. Baldwin died last month. ”We grieve,” their statement says, ”because we cannot yet assure that such shame, such national neglect, will not occur again, and then, again.” Consequently, Morrison earned the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award In 1988 for “Beloved.”

Morrison said that until she had written her third book, “Song of Solomon” in 1977, she had only considered herself an editor who wrote, or a teacher who wrote—but finally she considered herself a full-fledged writer.

During televised interviews with Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose, Morrison talks about her career and other folk’s admiration of her body of work: “There were people who wanted to ghettoize her work,” said Angela Davis. The theory was that humanity could only be colored white—and not through the characters in Morrison’s work.

“People didn’t know what to do with what she was writing,” said Sanchez. “Then, she became popular overseas, and we began teaching her work, and people started buying her books.”

Finally, Morrison who said that while growing up, “poverty wasn’t shameful,” and she showed the many layers of it in her works, all involved in this documentary would agree that “Morrison wasn’t afraid to be Black.”

Said Morrison, “I wrote books that I wanted to read. Free of codes and descriptions [that most white writers had to use when writing about Blacks]. The white gaze—or little white man that sits on your shoulder—knock him off, and you’re free.”

Greenfield-Sanders uses elegant portrait-style interviews, and includes original music by Kathryn Bostic, a specially created opening sequence by artist Mickalene Thomas, and evocative works by other contemporary African-American artists including Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson and Kerry James Marshall.

In addition to Ms. Morrison, the film features interviews with Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Morrison’s novel “Beloved” into a feature film.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is running at the Music Box Theatre, located at 3733 N. Southport Ave., through July 12, if not extended for longer.

For tickets and further information, please click here https://musicboxtheatre.com/films/toni-morrison-the-pieces-i-am.

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