Friday, July 5, 2019

"The Pieces I Am"-Bio Film Explores the Creative Soul of Nobel Prize-Winning Author Toni Morrison

by Dwight Casimere

 Dwight Casimere with the film's director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
 Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison

No one knows the power of words better than Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. In the brilliant documentary, The Pieces I Am' by celebrated photographer and long-time Morrison confidant  Timothy Greenfield Sanders, she tells how, as a toddler, when she and her sister began scratching the letters of a curse word she had seen on the sidewalk in front of her childhood home on Lorain, Ohio, her mother had become enraged beyond words. Later in life, she received word that the Texas Correctional Authority had banned her book Paradise from the prison reading library because, in their words, it would start a riot. "Now that's power,: Morrison says in the film, "that I could tear the whole place up!"

Using archival footage, artful animation, on camera interviews with Morrison herself and celebrated writers such as Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, her longtime editor Robert Gottlieb and others, combined with Greenfield-Sanders' own gripping photographs, the film is an absorbing and thoroughly informative portrait of the artist which dares to delve deep inside both her outwardly creative and introspectively inner soul.

With sensitive cinematography by Graham Willoughby, skillful editing by Johanna Giebelhaus, and a haunting score by Kathryn Bostic that incorporates both traditional and modern black music, the film has thundering impact in spite of its quiet, measured pace.

Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the film reaches deep into the author's cultural roots. She tells of her grandfather who proudly told her that he had read the Bible cover to cover five times. "In those days, it was against the law for a white person to teach a black person to read, much less for a black person to read. That alone brought a heavy penalty. In that sense, reading was a revolutionary act." That declaration by Morrison is layered with photos of lynchings to drive the thought home. One of Greenfield's own photo portraits of a pair of weathered black hands resting on a Bible further illustrates both the gravity and grace of the moment. 

Reflections on her later thirst for reading and knowledge involved her work as a teenaged ;library assistant where she spent the majority of her time reading the classics rather than dutifully stacking the shelves. Her voracious appetite for knowledge caused her to delve deeper and deeper into the world of literature, an act that would later inform her writing. 

After protesting her mother's early demands that she attend nearby Oberlin College, where Morrison felt parental interference would constantly distract her, she managed a scholarship to Howard University, the nation's most historic of Historically Black Colleges and ground zero for progressive black thought. Howard, the undisputed black Harvard, had its impact on a young, impressionable and idealistic Morrison. It gave full flower and substance to her burgeoning personal and racial identity and fueled and informed her creativity. Morrison's career as both  an author and editor at one of the nation's most powerful publishing houses, which brought to the public the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali, among others, is further illustrative of her commitment to promoting the thoughts and beliefs of her people. The path to her Nobel Prize is given further weight by the fact that her fellow black writers all joined to petition the National Book Award to grant her a prize which they felt she richly deserved.

In the film, Morrison is very clear about her mission as a writer. "I wanted to write books that spoke to me. I always felt that black writers were always writing to white people. The writers were always explaining things that they didn't have to explain to me. Even Frederick Douglass. He wasn't writing to me. The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison). Invisible to whom!?"

"The Pieces I Am" is one of the most absorbing biographical films you will ever see. It is both provocative and haunting and, like Morrison's many books, it compells one to revisit it again and again.

Particularly provocative is the anecdote she relates as to the incident that planted the seed for her celebrated novel, Beloved. The novel is loosely based on the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who flees slavery in Kentucky only to be captured in the free state of Ohio is 1856. Rather than surrender to the 'Paddy Rollers' (slave hunters), she elects to kill her own children rather than have them raised in slavery. The central issue surrounding her later trial was should she be tried for murder, which would mean that slaves were human beings, or for destroying property.

Beloved's place in black literature is immutable . Not only does it give flesh and blood to the saga of slavery it, in the words of editor Gottlieb, "crystalizes" the impact of slavery on black history and gives it a face and a soul. |t also, in Morrison's words, tells the story of the impact of slavery from the unique perspective of a black woman who must make a momentous and difficult choice.

Morrison opted not to make her novel a literal retelling of the facts of the story but merely used it as a jumping off point to explore a larger truth. She says the answer came to her in a vision.

"Early one morning I looked out my window at the end of the pier. And out of the river, a young woman arose, fully dressed, and sat on the edge of the pier. She was wearing a nice hat. Then she disappeared.  I new then that I had the solution for Beloved."

That's just one of the spoken gems of "The Pieces I Am." By viewing the film, one learns that the personality fragments that the author reveals are also deeply woven into the fabric of our own inner beings. 

 Receiving the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden and (below) the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama

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