Arts Festival

Blackness needs no context. It just is.


toni morrison the pieces i am

ALL hail Toni Morrison. Photograph courtesy

WHAT IS THE holy fire that gives a documentary film, muscle? The thing that makes a doccie shimmer with the same kind of sexiness as a fictional thriller, bringing in audiences thirsty to learn and curious to understand, and rendering it a must-see? On one level, it’s about how carefully the work has been crafted and how beautiful it is. On a more important level, it’s about how it provokes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up: with hairpin turns imposed upon the predictable, a good doccie makes you think. It may make you angry, but it shouldn’t confirm what you think you already know. This is the trap that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am falls into. You can watch it on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, available online without cost, until 30 August.

Morrison, who passed away in 2019, was unequivocally the voice of black society that refused to be contextualised. With her words and focuses, she smashed racist canons and fashions and echoed loud and proud through her writing and in the face of horrifying bias in the publishing – and other – industries. Her fight for acknowledgement was almost a holy one, surrounded as it was by controversy, detractors and fans. Born in Lorain, a city in Ohio, known as a cultural melting pot, she defined herself, wrote and published, edited and taught, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1993. By all accounts, hers was a charmed life.

The film begins with such magnificence even in its opening credits that you catch your breath, so that you do not sully any of it with interruptions, but as it unfolds, adorations upon adorations pepper the work and clutter its storytelling ability. Indeed, the gist of the film, offered in its trailer, is roughly all the depth you get. When you reflect on the currents of anti-black venom pouring into American society throughout Morrison’s life, from the 1930s, and how that venom was often insidiously present in everything from nursery rhymes to marketing, so do you begin to form a picture of the back story of Morrison’s struggles, as a single parent with fire in her pen.

That back story is blurred with broad brushstrokes in this film, however, and the film becomes an unexpurgated paean to a deity. While Morrison unequivocally warrants immense respect, the film becomes an act of bowing down and worshipping her in every way, tossing journalistic balance to the wind. For instance, Morrison’s two adult sons are never given voice in the film. Similarly, there is a lot of visual art by artists of the ilk of Kara Walker, for instance, that is shown but never acknowledged. This feels like an afterthought, disrespectful to the artists themselves, using their work as illustrations.

There are many talking heads in this work, but they all seem to say roughly the same thing. Feeling too long by half, this film seems a missed opportunity. Morrison’s life story and presence steers the work with a magnetic lion-like magnificence. She is gorgeous in physicality and thought, compelling to hear and wonderful to listen to. You can’t get enough of her – in live filmed interviews, in archive photographs. The film is delicious on the senses, but over its more than two hour trajectory of adulation it becomes oddly like too rich a marzipan cake.

  • Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is written and directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Produced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Johanna Giebelhaus, Chad Thompson and Tommy Walker, it features creative input by Johanna Giebelhaus (editing and research), Sandra Guzman (interviewer), Kathryn Bostic (music) and Graham Willoughby (photography). It is on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs until 30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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