Here I am, writing a review of a movie about a massively well-known, globally respected novelist whose books I have never read. Not a single one of them.
What I can still tell you with authority is that the film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is excellent. Some might even call it perfection. If not perfection, then certainly revelatory. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie before that made me think, Why the fuck have I never read any of her books? We all have cultural blind spots; I won’t exactly feel bad about that. I will still acknowledge this is a big one for me.
Also: reading the work of a brilliant author is one thing. Getting to know her as a uniquely self-actualized person is quite another — so much as can be done in a two-hour run time, anyway. Morrison is a strikingly intelligent woman, clearly as sharp as she’s ever been, at her current age of 88 years. I wonder how much of that is just practice, decades of exercising the muscles of her intellect? She talks about how she is “smartest” in the early morning hours, and has little interest or ability in writing after noon. Keeping that up must be a great exercise.
One need not have read her work to see how, when Toni Morrison leaves this earth, a great void will be left in her wake — and yet, in contrast to many other people for whom the same could be said, that void will be largely mitigated by her body of work, which is widely beloved (no pun intended).
Morrison, having sat down for multiple long interviews for this film, proves to be a dynamic screen presence. She only has to sit and speak, and she commands attention, all confidence, sincerity and warmth in equal measure, someone quick to express joy while at the same time capable of tapping into deep wells of pain. This is a woman who lacks humility only because she doesn’t need it. There is no particular arrogance in her demeanor; she simply sits comfortably in the knowledge of her skill and talent. She even says in an archived interview from the time of her 1993 win for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, “I’m a good writer.” It’s impossible to resent that level of ease of self. Would that more people learned from how she leads by example. The world would be full of happier people.
Watching this movie felt like having my mind cracked open. Admittedly, it did occur to me how naive it could be to allow such grandiose impressions of a person to be made by just one movie, which can easily be edited to make anyone seem in countless ways different than they actually are. Still, it’s easy to trust this impression. The singular energy emitted by Morrison onscreen is not easily faked, and many archival clips reveal it to have been consistent.
As for potential interest in her body of work examined by the film, there is something to be said for the notion of greater specificity evoking greater universality of feeling and empathy. Plenty of widely respected friends and associates are also interviewed (Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and several others), they come from varied backgrounds, and Morrison’s unprecedented narrative focus on black women in fiction moved them all in equal measure.
And it’s not like I had never heard of Tori Morrison, mind you. I can still remember when the movie adaptation of the novel Beloved became Oprah Winfrey’s passion project in the late nineties, more than a decade after the book’s initial publication. I actually did see that movie, and I recall easily imagining how the novel was likely the better medium for such a story. A novel, by all accounts beautifully written, could never have the distraction of an actor far too famous to disappear into any role.
There is no doubt in my mind that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will delight fans of the novelist — who, I learned from this film, spent the years spanning the publication of her first few books also working full time as an editor at a publishing house, promoting the works of other black women (including the autobiography of Angela Davis), while also raising two sons on her own. Based on my personal experience, it’s just as affecting to those who have never read anything by her, and will render them eager to start. All I have left to decide is which of her novels I should begin with.