Updated: Jul 1, 2019
While watching Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on opening night at Film Forum in New York City, the man sitting next to me cried. It started as a low, hollow noise that I initially took for awkward laughter, but then his sounds turned into free, open sobs when Sonia Sanchez described Toni Morrison as having a light around her. We all saw it, felt that bright wisdom that shines when she talks about her early days at Howard University or reads a passage from one of her glorious novels or recounts a childhood memory that sparked the inspiration for The Bluest Eye. To say the film is moving would be an understatement; it is a rousing head nod that affirms why black women writers celebrate her so boldly.
After the screening, filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Professor Farah Griffin, who is featured in the film, sat for a Q&A. In the dark, packed theater, I heard someone ask about Ms. Morrison’s place in the American literary canon, about it being odd that anyone would ever question her place there. Professor Griffin, who teaches English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, noted that in our present memory, Morrison is taught in high school and in college. But that wasn’t always the case as we know that white writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway dominated those positions. Griffin explained that deciding who gets to be a part of the canon is not a simple process; it doesn’t happen without political fight. As I listened, I realized that I hadn’t read any Toni Morrison in high school. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I enrolled in an African American literature course called Great Books of the Black Experience. I didn’t know it at the time but that course, Dr. Tracey Walters, the black woman professor who taught it, and reading Beloved, completely altered my life. I was challenged and seen in ways that were so new to me that I started to seriously question everything that came before reading her work. That same professor introduced me to The Autobiography of Angela Davis, another life-altering text, which Morrison edited.
Many of us have a favorite Toni Morrison novel. I have two. Sula is my spiritual favorite and Home is my craft favorite. In the film we spend some time hearing about how Sula filled a critical gap in literature by expanding our imagination around black female friendship. Griffin notes that she recognized the familiar in that story while being drawn to the controversial dynamics that play out between friends Sula and Nel. When Morrison talks about her grandmother and her unwavering decision to leave Alabama to protect her children from the violent threat of racist marauders, it comes as no surprise that complex black women have filled Morrison’s life through word and action.
The morning after seeing the documentary, I thought about the astounding images that the filmmaker sets to narration. Images from the past that show black folk doing typical things while present day black folk lay narrative over them have the power to undo the stereotypes we too often see through popular images. One image stands out in my mind. The film shows a black and white photograph of a young black man, his gaze resolute, his white shirt buttoned to the collar, looking upward, presumably at someone or something. This is the image that accompanies Morrison talking about Milkman Dead, the protagonist from Song of Solomon. Though we know Milkman is a fictional character, seeing that photograph felt like finally getting to meet him in person after all these years. At the end when the credits rolled, it was gratifying to see that the art used in the film was chosen from black artists like Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, and others. I left thinking of the significance of Black on Black on Black on Black.
And yet, despite literary and commercial success, it seems that there are always haters in the mix. Morrison had been overlooked by the big American literary prizes, so 48 black writers protested, demanding that the institutions that choose to ignore her artistry, wake up and make change. And then we have critics who took issue with the fact that Morrison writes black characters. Their hate almost went nuclear when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But the film counteracts that noise with recollections from Morrison and her friends when she learned she won the prestigious award. To see their joy rise to the top all over again reminded me that writing is a long game, so having good friends in your corner no matter what will sustain you. I loved when Fran Lebowitz said that Morrison winning the Nobel “was important for the prize.”
Morrison drops gems about eliminating the white gaze in her writing and the utterly boring existence that racism tries to relegate us to. My advice: see the film if you can. Whether you are a Toni Morrison stan or not, it’s a remarkable examination of black women writing as an act of resistance, a lesson in valuing self, and a reminder that black women hold the history of America in their stories.
Darise JeanBaptiste is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @darisejean on or www.darisejeanbaptiste.com.