When Oprah Winfrey wanted to tell Toni Morrison that she intended to adapt Morrison’s novel Beloved into a movie, she couldn’t find a phone number for the famed author. Oprah, being Oprah, was undaunted. She knew the area where Morrison lived and contacted the fire department there, who gave her the number. To her surprise, Morrison didn’t react with giddy excitement at hearing from Winfrey and the news about the movie.
As Winfrey tells it, “The best part is, when Toni answered the phone, her initial reaction was, ‘How did you get my number?’ "
American Masters – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Tuesday, PBS, 8 p.m.) reveals a more complex Morrison than the cherished storyteller persona that grew around her after she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, the first Black American writer to do so. The program, beautifully made, and reflective, also has a distinct contemporary resonance, airing as it does at a time of seismic attention to anti-Black racism in the United States.
It sets out to examine her life and work, with many archived interviews from the author herself included, but is more ruminative and probing than it is hagiography. One can see the sources of the persona much-liked by the mainstream media when Morrison talks about her childhood. She tells the story of learning to write and read and then writing words in chalk on the cement outside the family home. Her mother was furious about some of those words and demanded they be washed away. From that, Morrison says, she learned the power of words.
But the meat of the program concentrates on Morrison as major novelist, distinguished scholar, accomplished editor and scold. She is emphatic about the creation of narrative in her work, and anyone who reads literary novels should pay attention to her explanations of how she creates and how she wants the reader to react.
There is much discussion – from Morrison, plus Hilton Als, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez and others – about the reaction to her early novels. Specifically, the condescending suggestions that a writer so gifted should write about more than the Black experience. We are also introduced to Morrison the senior figure at Random House, who wanted to help create a canon of Black writing. And there is much talk about the impulse of Black writers to feel validated by the white “gaze” upon their work.
Morrison acknowledged that she was inspired to write because no one took a “little Black girl” seriously, and that was often mentioned in obituaries when she died last year. What wasn’t quoted enough was her statement about her work: “I didn’t want it to be a teaching tool for white people.” And yet, to add to the complexity, her work is a journey into the haunting turmoil of Black history for any reader. The program is a must-see for any student of literature and anyone curious about her work, and the world from which she emerged.
Also airing: Queen of the Oil Patch (Tuesday, APTN, 9 p.m.) is back. The documentary series, which first arrived in 2018, follows the life and adventures of Massey Whiteknife, a two-spirited First Nations businessman, and his performer/recording artist alter ego, Iceis Rain. The first season was about Whiteknife fully embracing that other spirit. He said at the time, “I don’t wanna say that I’m transgender or a drag queen or a cross-dresser, or I’m gay. Because I’m not. I’m two-spirited. I’m a male and a female.”
This season picks up with Iceis in bad shape, After the near-collapse of his business, he was on the skids, drinking too much and making other bad choices. Now he’s leaving Fort McMurray for Edmonton. He needs to lose weight, stay in shape, stay sober, fully become Iceis Rain and, on the side, start a non-profit foundation to help Indigenous youth. He tries boxing too, to get in shape. A wisecracking, self-deprecating character, he’s both a hoot and a fascinating figure. Queen of the Oil Patch is truly distinctive Canadian reality TV about a true original who is unstoppable.
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