I’m always interested in documentaries about writers, even though I also suspect that there’s no good reason for them to exist. Of all the arts, literature offers the least cinema-friendly action.
It can be illuminating to watch a painter wielding a brush or a musician at the piano — or, for that matter, a filmmaker on set — but any time you see a shot of a scribe bent over a laptop or a yellow pad, you’re not really witnessing anything at all. They just look like they’re writing.
And besides, the time spent watching, say, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” might be more profitably spent reading “Sula,” “Beloved” or “The Source of Self-Regard,” Morrison’s recent collection of essays on history, imagination and African-American life. That isn’t to dismiss this generous and intelligent documentary in any way, just to note that it puts itself at a certain disadvantage. Modesty, though, is among its virtues.
Writers don’t live only in their books, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ film, produced under the auspices of PBS’ venerable “American Masters” series, offers a look at Morrison that can complement an acquaintance with her work and inspire new reading. It’s less a biography than an extended essay, which is entirely a good thing. If you want a thorough documentation of everything Morrison has done and everyone she knows, there’s always Wikipedia. But if you’d prefer an argument for her importance and a sense of her presence, then you won’t be disappointed.
Like a good magazine profile, “The Pieces I Am” is built around an extended interview. Morrison, 88, faces the camera and reflects on her career as a novelist and editor and on the history that has informed her fiction. She has the air of both a person capable of great delight and one who doesn’t suffer fools. She is candid, funny and sometimes guarded — Greenfield-Sanders and Morrison’s friends and colleagues are scrupulous about respecting her privacy — with the charisma of someone who knows what she’s talking about.
She talks about her parents, who came north as part of the Great Migration, and her childhood in Lorain, Ohio, a working-class town where African Americans and white people, many of them immigrants, lived as neighbors. She talks about attending Howard University, where she had a good time (“I was loose,” she says with a smile) and began to turn her lifelong love of reading into a vocation. She talks about working in publishing, in Syracuse, New York, and then in Manhattan, and about rising early, as the single mother of two young sons, to work on her first novel. She talks about resisting the primacy of the white gaze, and about the challenge and reward of imagining black lives on their and her own terms.
The people who talk about her include Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Sonia Sanchez and Robert Gottlieb, who was her colleague at Random House and became the editor of nearly all her novels. Of those, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon” and of course “Beloved” receive the most attention. But the film also, inevitably, holds them at a distance. We see a few clips from Jonathan Demme’s 1998 screen version of “Beloved,” and 19th-century engravings that evoke the real-life incident that informed the book, but the difficulty of its narrative and the magic of its prose are left mainly outside the frame.
A handful of tone-deaf reviews and polemics are mentioned, including a notice in The New York Times that found her emphasis on black lives “narrow” in its focus. The mid-1980s dust-up that followed a petition signed by prominent black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize is revisited, as are some of the grumpy responses that greeted her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Those storms seem distant now; Morrison in the present looks like a figure who has risen above the vicissitudes of reputation. She is beyond dispute.
The absence of live controversy doesn’t entirely work to the movie’s benefit. At times, the chorus of praise from the assembled notables can make “The Pieces I Am” feel more like a banquet than a documentary. But one thing we learn about Morrison is that she loves a good party. Even though this one has been thrown in her honor, she still manages to be the life of it and, somehow, the surprise guest, too.
She has written about private pain and collective trauma as tenderly and ruthlessly as anyone, and therefore the most startling — and the most moving — thing about encountering her on screen is her buoyancy, the enjoyment she finds in being herself. In her straight-to-camera soliloquies and in earlier televised conversations (with Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose, among others) she is always serious, but also always having fun, delighting in the eddies that language makes in the currents of thought.
Of course, Morrison’s intellectual and linguistic gifts are most meaningfully encountered on the page, which is where they will live after she is gone. “The Pieces I Am” offers something else, as a dividend yielded by her achievements and her years on the earth: the profound pleasure of her company.
(Opens Friday at the Glenwood Arts.)
‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images/thematic material.