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film review

Toni Morrison in The Pieces I Am.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
  • Directed by: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
  • Classification: PG; 120 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

In 2019, Toni Morrison requires no introduction. As one of the most groundbreaking cultural icons of the 20th century, the Nobel Prize-winner’s body of work is a testament to her role in establishing the historically neglected pillar of black lived experiences in the American literary canon. Arriving on the heels of her 88th birthday and after its premiere at Sundance, The Pieces I Am is intimately inspired by the uniquely nuanced and uncompromising approach to storytelling she pioneered.

Directed by long-time friend and renowned photographer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the film debuts at a moment when many have critiqued an approach to profile writing about women of colour that prioritizes their identity, rather than their creative process. Perhaps in response to this, Greenfield-Sanders narrows the focus to put her at the podium of a master-class on her craft.

During its two hours, the film pairs Morrison’s own reflections with a deep dive into her life and catalogue. Those looking for an unchallenging and straightforward introduction to her work will be, thankfully, disappointed. The Pieces I Am is compellingly organized and like much of Morrison’s writing, forces the viewer to think carefully to keep up. By adhering to a blueprint dominated by the chronology of her books rather than a firm historical timeline, the film bounces between pivotal moments in her storied career. At its core, it’s guided by its overarching ambition – rendering vibrant the many layers of context necessary for understanding her life.

Often, subtle details are captured with paramount particularity. Crisp, aglow and frequently head-on, the on-screen positioning of an acclaimed cast of collaborators, colleagues and champions reveal flickering facial expressions and shifting body language. Speakers such as Fran Lebowitz, Angela Davis and Oprah come to life as unwaveringly ardent fans, openly mesmerized with both Morrison’s artistry and public candour as an icon.

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The film is directed by Morrison's long-time friend and renowned photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

This is all encased in open and unfiltered access to Morrison herself, who through archived photos and stock imagery, narrates crucial moments of her life. Through a multipronged network of anecdotes, the film forfeits polished edges to offer Morrison the space to fuse generously self-aware private reckonings (such as when she accidentally joined a sorority at Howard University that scouted light-skinned students) with an unflinching public exposition of the state of race relations in America.

What we get is a portrait of Morrison as not only a writer, but a multihyphenate who has spent her career shape-shifting as a keen archivist devoted to rejecting revisionist history, and an editorial midwife to a new canon of black literary excellence. Woven together with dynamic multimedia elements and a luminescent soundtrack of mid-century jazz, The Pieces I Am is a spectacular and overwhelming audiovisual sensory experience where Morrison herself is the director of an expedition into her psyche.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of the film is its function as a guidebook for a new generation of creators seeking access to elders that can provide a stylistic compass for their work. For a film about a writer of Morrison’s magnitude, The Pieces I Am carefully unfolds her work from every possible angle. In its wake is an unrivalled wealth of information that comes close to delineating her formula for creating revolutionary art.

The necessity of repeated readings of Morrison is a reoccurring theme: by Oprah who squints as she explains the act of putting down her books until she got it; or poet Sonia Sanchez, who says that Morrison should be read repeatedly, at least once a decade.

I have a decent selection of her works in my collection and, admittedly, some have taken years to finish reading. As with Morrison’s books, The Pieces I Am invites multiple, maybe even piecemeal, encores, because few writers wield the capacity to leave their readers with an evolving parting message with each subsequent reread.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am opens July 5 in Toronto, and July 12 in Montreal.

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