Toni Morrison tells stories. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders creates portraits. So Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” is a perfect melding of their talents, an incisive portrait brimming with great stories.
Saying Morrison is a great storyteller may seem blindingly obvious, considering the 88-year-old author received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 (for “Beloved”), and has enough awards to break a bookshelf. But she reveals in this PBS-produced documentary a raconteur’s ear for anecdote as she recalls the mileposts of her autobiography, from her childhood in Ohio, her college days at Howard University, her years as a single mom of two boys, and her work as an editor for Random House.
What becomes clear, in Morrison’s interview for Greenfield-Sanders’ camera and in archival footage (including interviews with Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose), is that Morrison is leaving out some facets of her personal life. We hear little about her brief marriage, and nothing about the untimely death of her younger son, Slade, in 2010.
The focus here, fittingly, is on Morrison’s work and its place in the literary firmament. Greenfield-Sanders gathers an array of prominent thinkers who discuss different facets of Morrison’s genius. Activist Angela Davis describes how Morrison, as editor of her 1974 autobiography, helped channel political fury into incisive prose. Her editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, praises her gift for story structure. Poet Sonia Sanchez and author Walter Mosley talk about how Morrison defied her critics by writing from a perspective besides that of the white male gaze — the default setting of the literary establishment, then and now.
The most familiar face among the interview subjects is Morrison’s friend and champion, Oprah Winfrey, who boasts that she brought Morrison’s books to the masses through her “Oprah’s Book Club.” Also, Winfrey produced and played the main role of Sethe in the only movie adaptation of a Morrison book, “Beloved” (1998).
Morrison, the documentary points out, took readers into the African-American experience — and, more to the point, the female African-American experience — deeper than any author before, and possibly since, in such books as “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” “Jazz,” “Paradise” and others. Greenfield-Sanders gives Morrison her due, by letting her tell her own fascinating story.
‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’
Opened June 21 in select cities; opens Friday, August 2, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images/thematic material. Running time: 120 minutes.