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Non-Review Review: Toni Morrison – The Pieces I Am

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Toni Morrison – The Pieces I Am feels like a really pleasant dinner party with very engaging guests, which is both high praise and faint criticism.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary is a decidedly unfussy affair. Although it uses stock footage and inserts to provide a sense of context for its conversations, The Pieces I Am largely focuses on direct interviews with its subjects. People like Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz and Walter Mosley  directly address the camera and the audience. There’s an endearing sense of camaraderie and friendship in all of this. There’s a wonderful warmth to the documentary, most of which radiates from Morrison herself.

The Pieces I Am is never especially incisive or combative, even when discussing thorny issues around systemic injustice and a longstanding history of cultural violence. These elements are never ignored or brushed aside, but they are never allowed to lower the tone of the discussion or shift the mood of the debate. Instead, The Pieces I Am remains focused on providing a space where artists can talk at length – and very much in their own distinctive way – about what Toni Morrison means to them.

The result is an immensely charming and affectionate study of one of the great American writers, which only occasionally feels little over-indulgent.

There’s a moment late in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, where the interviewees discuss the joy of attending the Nobel gala that was held in honour of Morrison. Morrison herself is enthused. “I love the Nobel Prize,” she explains. “Because they know how to throw a party!” Morrison recalls ringing up old friends and pushing them into coming along with the observation “nobody is ever going to invite you again.” Author and contemporary Fran Lebowitz talks about how wonderful the evening was, and how Morrison loves parties. “You should be friends with somebody who wins a Nobel Prize, is what I’m saying,” she explains.

It’s a lovely and charming moment in a lovely and charming documentary, and one that perhaps comes close to capturing the general tone of the piece. The Pieces I Am often feels like an extended celebratory dinner party held in honour of its title guest. It’s a literary and sincere equivalent to those comedy roasts that have become a fixture of comedy television stations, except driven by warmth and humanism more than bile and cynicism. It’s a a delightfully disarming approach, and certainly one that befits an author of Morrison’s stature and personability.

Indeed, given the cast of talking heads assembled for the project, this approach is no bad thing. The Pieces I Am is a very straightforward documentary, largely trusting its interviewees to carry the narrative. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has assembled an impressive array of conversationalists – writers, poets, critics, pundits. These are people who tell stories for a living, and who are more than willing to regale audience members of not only their own reads on Morrison, but more importantly their own experiences of her and her work.

The Pieces I Am folds in a lot of the expected beats for a Toni Morrison documentary. Her major works receive some coverage. Her life story is allowed to play out, spanning from her (incredibly charming) account of the moment that she realised that “words have power” through to her discovery of the perfect carrot cake recipe in college. (“They use too few carrots,” she muses of her closest competitors for the title of “best carrot cake in the world.”) More earnestly, the film covers the backlash to works like Sula and The Bluest Eye, along with the extent to which Morrison was often excluded from the literary canon.

However, the real charm of The Pieces I Am exists quite separate from its account of the historical record. Instead, it relishes individual subjects recounting their own intensely personal accounts of Morrison and their passion for her work. These anecdotes lend a warm and humanising touch to this character study, making it feel a lot more intimate and personal than many similar documentaries. Morrison herself eagerly invites the approach. At one point towards the end of the film, she raises her hand as if to touch the screen, and there’s a strong urge on the audience’s behalf to reach back.

These stories create a sense of what it’s like to know Morrison, to exist in her circles or her orbit. David Carrasco recalls Mexican fans queuing eagerly for a reading, firmly rejecting the translator so that they might hear Morrison read in her own voice. Later, he recounts a quiet encounter with another reader that turned into a delightfully nerdy game of “top trumps.” (He gasps, “She trumped me with Song of Solomon!”) Indeed, the most delightful part of the segment dedicated to Morrison’s Nobel prize amounts to a riff on the idea that everybody in literature remembers where they were when Morrison won the Nobel prize.

While the documentary does occasionally pull back to provide a larger sense of context for Morrison’s work, The Pieces I Am mostly comes across as two hours of incredibly witty and engaging people talking about how much the love Morrison. Morrison herself is an incredible subject, with a deft skill for combining piercing observations with disarming charm. The biggest problem with The Pieces I Am is that it occasionally feels its length. Then again, it’s hard to know what exactly should be trimmed. The anecdotes are the most obvious candidate, but they are also the part where the film truly comes to life.

The Pieces I Am is arguably a documentary that works best as an extended dinner party conversation. Still, when your subject is this insightful, and your guests are so erudite, who could complain too loudly?

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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