Toni Morrison had to figure out a way to talk to Muhammad Ali. It was the mid-’70s and at the time, she was his editor, tasked with bringing his autobiography to the world. But Ali wouldn’t speak to her—deferring instead to whatever man was in the room.
Her longtime friend, author and activist Angela Davis, recalls seeing that dynamic play out—and witnessing Morrison come up with a solution. At the time, Morrison had already published The Bluest Eye and Sula, but it wasn’t her literary heft that she threw at the heavyweight champion. Knowing how much Ali held mother figures in reverence, Morrison, the mother of two boys, spoke to Ali in ways “that reminded him of his mother,” Davis recalls, eventually using this to forge a deep connection to the boxer.
It’s a story Davis recalls while on the phone with me, and that Morrison tells herself in a new documentary, The Pieces I Am, in theaters this Friday.
In Davis’ words, the documentary is a “living memorial” to Morrison’s life and work. Directed by Morrison’s friend and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, what makes The Pieces I Am particularly gratifying is its mosaic quality. Taken from a famous line from her 1987 novel, Beloved, the film acts as a sort of gathering place: You can find archival footage of Morrison talking about her work or responding to critics, close friends like Davis, poet Sonia Sanchez and Oprah recounting treasured anecdotes, and critics like the New Yorker’s Hilton Als contextualizing her work. But most importantly, you can find Morrison herself, gazing directly at the camera, talking to you.
It’s this final ingredient that’s most seductive: Morrison has long possessed an ethereal presence, with people around the world gobbling up her advice, her observations, and her books as though she were a living oracle. But the documentary gives the Nobel Prize winner greater depth, granting Morrison the space to tell jokes, reflect, and muse on the life she’s lived and the work she’s done.
“I think that the Toni you see is the Toni that I know. A very open, very funny, astute, incisive Toni Morrison,” director Greenfield-Sanders tells me. He first met the Nobel-prize winning author when he took her photograph—a well-documented smoker, Morrison first appeared before him with a pipe. Greenfield-Sanders, who’s shot portraits of Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, says he was first struck by Morrison’s confidence: “She always did have a kind of presence that was undeniable.”
Greenfield-Sanders tells The Root he first conceived of doing a Morrison documentary after doing a film about singer, songwriter and Velvet Underground lead Lou Reed. The timing of the retrospective, filmed more than 15 years before the singer passed, allowed Reed and his legendary contemporaries, like David Bowie and Patti Smith, to participate.
“You want to do a film about someone when they’re still able to participate in it,” Greenfield-Sanders says. “And I think that that’s what’s so strong here, is that Toni tells her story.”
One technique Greenfield-Sanders uses to foster intimacy between Morrison and the viewer is to let her talk directly to the camera while everyone else talking about her is set at an angle—a nod to the fact that the focus, even when she’s not in the frame, is always on Morrison.
There is much in the film for viewers in all stages of Morrison fandom. The most devout Morrison readers will likely be familiar with the criticism she received in the ’70s and ’80s that her work was too concerned with black Americans; she is “is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life” read a New York Times book review of Sula). They’ll also be familiar with Morrison’s fierce and persistent refusal to bow to the white gaze in her work and to defer to white critics, predecessors, and contemporaries.
“I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did. And I wasn’t afraid to show it,” Morrison says in the doc.
Fans will also be familiar with certain details of her biography and her writing habits: that she would wake up at dawn to write her novels (how would she also raise two sons and hold down a full-time job as an editor at Random House otherwise?) But there are also plenty of new details that will delight longtime Morrison fans: the author brags about her carrot cake—its singular deliciousness confirmed by Davis and others in the documentary (her secret: nobody else uses enough carrots). She loves prizes and gifts (this according to friend and author Fran Lebowitz). She keeps a letter in her bathroom from the Texas Bureau of Corrections informing her that her novel Paradise was banned from its prisons because officials feared it might start a riot (“How powerful is that?” Morrison laughs. “I could tear up the whole place!”) While living in Washington, D.C., where she attended Howard University, she used to steal “white” and “colored” signs and mail them to her mother in Lorain, Ohio.
Through all these stories, Morrison’s on-camera presence feels revelatory—her wit on full display, as well as a certain amount of incredulousness. At one point, she chuckles at the ridiculousness of Jim Crow segregation: how middle-class white families could have their children bathed by black women, could eat the food black people prepared daily for their tables, but forbade people of different races to sit next to each other in public. But these stories also help shed insight on how deeply Morrison, whose career as a writer now spans nearly 40 years, understands the country she grew up in, and the profound ways race shaped it.
Morrison retells one such story about her grandmother, who alongside her grandfather, used to work as a sharecropper in Mobile, Ala. One day, Morrison says, her grandmother informed her husband that she and the children would be on a northbound train.
“White boys are circling, and we have to leave,” Morrison’s grandmother told her husband through a hand-delivered note. “If you want to see us again, be on that train.”
“The girls were growing up and white boys would come look at them from a distance, but she knew what they had in mind,” Morrison explains to the viewer. The family ended up in Lorain, where Morrison was born, and which would become the setting of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
It’s a terrifying story, and unfortunately, not unfamiliar. It is also enthralling to hear Morrison share these observations and bits of family history—and if viewers feel that way, so too did the people behind the camera.
“Toni not only is an incredible storyteller, but she has a beautiful voice, a very seductive voice,” Greenfield-Sanders says. “So when the interviews are going on, the whole crew is just drawn in. It was wonderful. You didn’t want it to end.”
But beyond Morrison’s personal history, the documentary firmly makes the case for her impact on American literature—and ultimately, the world.
“I have no idea what my trajectory would have been like had I not encountered Toni Morrison,” Davis tells me. It was in 1972, shortly after she was acquitted on bogus accusations of conspiracy, murder, and kidnapping. “It was she who convinced me to write an autobiography”—a story she tells in the documentary itself—“that is something that would have never occurred to me.”
“As a matter of fact, I vociferously opposed the idea of writing an autobiography,” she added, recalling her thinking at the time: “I was just one person of many who had suffered from that repression, and I was not an extraordinary person, so why should I write an autobiography?”
Lucky for the rest of us, Morrison convinced her otherwise.
One key takeaway from the film, Davis says, is how Morrison had a way of “finding the best in people.” This is most apparent in her work as an editor, where she helped usher in the work of seminal black writers and thinkers, among them Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara, and yes, Muhammad Ali. It’s clear Morrison would have been a once-in-a-lifetime figure for her books alone, but her role in fundamentally reshaping the American literary canon and championing black writers is given deserved attention in the documentary.
But The Pieces I Am ought to be more than a catalog of Morrison’s many noteworthy accomplishments. She still has so much more to teach the world—and black writers in particular—Davis says.
“The theme of Toni Morrison’s work has been a very deep engagement with race,” she says, adding that Morrison’s work helped her not just think differently, but to see and feel differently. “Her work can play a foundational role in the new conversations we need to be having during this period ... of what kind of world we need to envision for the future.”