‘The Pieces I Am’ captures character, contributions to literary canon

Posted 8/21/19

I missed seeing the biopic “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” during its initial run at the Rose Theatre, so when the Rose brought it back, to commemorate Morrison’s passing earlier this month, I not only knew I needed to see it, but I also knew who I needed to see it with.

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‘The Pieces I Am’ captures character, contributions to literary canon

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I missed seeing the biopic “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” during its initial run at the Rose Theatre, so when the Rose brought it back, to commemorate Morrison’s passing earlier this month, I not only knew I needed to see it, but I also knew who I needed to see it with.

Before she retired and moved to Port Townsend, my mother, Linda Boxleitner, taught English for literally longer than I’ve been alive, and one of the novels she taught her high school seniors for a good number of those years was Morrison’s “Beloved,” which I’ll let her explain for herself:

“I had colleagues who taught Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye.’ I taught ‘Beloved’ because I wanted to challenge not only my students, but myself. I re-read it every time I taught it, and it remained a very difficult book, but her words are so beautiful that they’re almost pure poetry.”

In “The Pieces I Am,” Oprah Winfrey recalls a similar experience when she read “Beloved,” starting and stopping in fits, as she frequently went back and re-read what she’d just read.

According to Winfrey, Morrison told her that’s what the experience of reading should properly be about.

Winfrey isn’t the only fan of Morrison who appears in “The Pieces I Am” to describe such a contentious relationship with her works, as even fellow critically acclaimed authors talk about throwing her books across the room, either in fits of frustration or other outbursts of emotion, only to retrieve those novels soon afterward, because they, like my mom, found her words so compelling.

Both Morrison and her fellow black authors who appear in this film note that her novels take care to describe the black experience without allowing it to be dominated by “the white gaze,” which they point out that even previous generations of black authors did, by explaining aspects of black people’s lives for the benefit of white readers, since black audiences needed no such explanations to understand those experiences.

“The Pieces I Am” highlights how Morrison not only wrote about the realities of black life in ways that afforded black people an identity entirely independent of white people, but she also wrote about black women during a period when they were even less represented as protagonists than they are now, with the film acknowledging that the feminist and black civil rights movements of the 1970s seemed to represent white women and black men, respectively, in ways that made black women feel bereft of a public voice.

Moreover, Morrison is praised in the film by her literary peers for writing about black women who, as in her novels “Beloved” and “Sula,” engage in sometimes shockingly transgressive behavior, and yet, Morrison evokes her audience’s empathy for these characters, not in spite of their deeds, but because of them.

The film includes a clip of Dick Cavett interviewing Morrison, which encapsulates the challenges she faced as an author, because while she tells Cavett that she doesn’t object to being described as a black author, since that’s who she is, she does find the label objectionable if it’s applied reductively.

Given the film’s sample quotes from dismissive reviews of “Sula,” in which reviewers conceded Morrison’s talent, but insisted she would eventually need to “outgrow” writing exclusively about the black experience, “The Pieces I Am” makes clear that what Morrison was fighting all along was the insidious idea that the black experience itself is somehow a lesser subject than the white experience.

Although Morrison was a private person in life, which my experience as a journalist has taught me can often translate into awkward interviews, her interview segments for “The Pieces I Am” feel like nothing so much as a comfortable conversation with a warm, confident woman who has a very clear sense of who she is, even as she continues to strive for further development, both as an author and as a person.

Of course, all of these thoughts are coming from a relative novice in the field of Toni Morrison, so I’ll ask my mother, as a former professional teacher of Morrison, what struck her about this film:

“I was impressed by how many of her novels they managed to cover, but what I hadn’t realized was how much work she did as an editor, working with other black authors. I suppose it speaks to the compulsion of writing, as a calling, that she was working as an editor, a teacher and a writer, all three of which are full-time jobs, on top of being a single mother to her two boys. She even says in the film that her only two priorities are to be a mother and to write.”

Indeed, even if Morrison had never become an author herself, her work as an editor would qualify as legitimately heroic in its own right.

Langston Hughes, who was of the generation that preceded Morrison, came under criticism for not holding the door open for his fellow black writers, but Morrison fostered opportunities for black authors through her editorship, and in the case of black activist Angela Davis, actively recruited her to write the book that Davis herself admits that she didn’t know she had in her.

“The Pieces I Am” closes with an extended sequence devoted to Morrison winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and the film so effectively conveys the hard work she’s put in, just to get to that point, that seeing her receive the pinnacle of literary recognition feels like a reward for the audience as well.

Yes, it also includes a brief assortment of critics who, at the time, scorned Morrison’s Nobel award as a “sham” and an example of “political correctness,” but even with her recent passing, Morrison lived long enough to have the last laugh.

As an extremely self-indulgent aside, if you see my co-reviewer, be sure to wish her and my dad a happy 50th wedding anniversary, since they got married during the same summer as the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the original Woodstock concert.

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