Toni Morrison’s intellectual warmth and humanity unfurl in gentle, unforced triumph in this docu-celebration by film-maker and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, which was completed in 2019 just before Morrison died. Part of what makes it so interesting is the repeated, unfashionable emphasis on the power and importance of literary fiction. Oprah Winfrey and Angela Davis testify to this importance, and Morrison’s importance within it. In his own commentary, Walter Mosley says: “Books have an incredible impact on our culture, even though most of our culture doesn’t even know it.”
The film takes us through Morrison’s early education (there’s a great photo of her playing Elizabeth of York in a student production of Richard III, with a queenly bearing), then her remarkable career at the highest pinnacles of American high culture. She was a fiction editor at Random House, a humanities professor at Princeton and a Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author of novels including Song of Solomon and Beloved – a triple-whammy of achievement as a mentor, teacher and creator, in which her role as an artist is paramount.
Morrison is fascinating when she speaks about the prevalence of the “white voice” in literature when she was growing up, the fact that even black figures such as Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison seemed to be addressing a white audience. She struck against that and was rewarded with patronising reviews that finger-wagged about her only writing about the black experience without bringing in white characters to make it important and universal. She tells her creative-writing students to look beyond their experiences and their “little life” and asks them, for example, to imagine that of a Mexican girl. In other words: don’t stay in your lane. I would have liked to hear her views on the cultural appropriation debate, but sadly that was not touched upon. This documentary is a potent commercial for the books themselves.
• Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is released in the UK on 6 March.