The Toni Morrison Documentary That Honors Her Legacy

toni morrison documentary review

Toni Morrison passed away today at the age of 88. Morrison’s words were a fearless reminder of what it means to be human, a lush celebration of all forms of black womanhood. In her writing she let fear, pain, love, lust, shame, and joy sit side by side, hand in hand, gently tugging a string from my heart to her words on a page, making me feel known in ways I didn’t think possible. As I wrote in my below review of the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, it’s been a great gift to be alive at the same time she was, to have never known life without her.

With so much to be sad about in the world today, her passing feels timely in a way, a final gift to remind us to not sit in our despair but to turn to the things that make us who we are. Not to run from our sadness and grief but to let them remind us that we’re still here, still feeling, still able to do something with our time on earth. Below, a little bit more about The Pieces I Am, a story originally published on Man Repeller in June 2019, in case you didn’t get a chance to see it.

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”- Toni Morrison, The Nation, 2016

When I was 17 and read The Bluest Eye, I saw parts of myself I didn’t want to see, like the ways in which being a black girl in a culture that is hostile towards my very being had shaped some of my thoughts and values. I have re-read the book every few years or so as a barometer of growth, and every time I find something new in the writing, and new in my reaction to it.

Toni Morrison has been so critical to who I am as a reader and person, it seems like a strange twist of fate that she’s alive. Not in a macabre way—but when I think about how I get to read her work as it’s being produced, how I can see her at lectures, and how I could feasibly send her an email (I have not tried to email Toni Morrison) or run into her at a gas station, it’s…surreal. Legends are supposed to be these distant unknowable figures, ahead of their time yet timeless, suspended in some imperfect past in which they shaped a more promising present.

So it feels like a blessing that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a new documentary filled with talking-head interviews and b-roll footage, offers the Nobel Prize winner space to reflect on her life and work while she’s still creating. The doc opens in select theaters June 21. Below, my review.

What did you see? Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

I know I could look this up, but who is in it? Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Oprah, many others, and lots of archival footage.

Oh cool, cool. Who made it? Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the documentary filmmaker who made The Black List, The Trans List, and The Latino List.

Why should I leave the comfort of my home for this? If you love Toni Morrison, this is a no-brainer. It’s nice to hear from legends while they’re alive—to hear others celebrate their work knowing that the legend in question is going to hear every single word. If you’re a casual Toni Morrison fan, it’s still interesting to hear about her career path and the doors she opened for others. She also recounts her freshman year at Howard in such a way that made me write, “All right, Toni” in my notes.

Which movies is it cousins with? Greenfield-Sanders previous docs in style and tone, and RBG in that it is more of a love letter to a famous figure than an exposé.

Explain this movie like we’re strangers at a dinner party! It’s a pretty standard interview-format documentary. Toni Morrison discusses her life and work and what it’s like to be a literary giant in a world dominated by white men and the value of black people writing stories for, and seeing themselves without the white gaze. There are interviews with other writers and public figures and people who worked with her behind the scenes who flesh out different parts of her story. She is fairly casual and blunt about her success and the obstacles put in her way—she talks about writing while parenting as if it is the easiest thing in the world. There are no shocking revelations nor conflicting viewpoints presented, but it’s a good reminder to anyone who wants to be a creative that just doing the work is the biggest part of the endeavor.

*Now imagine me chewing through that entire spiel.*

Did you enjoy it? Sounds like you enjoyed it. I did! I love Toni Morrison and it was great to hear her talk about her life in her own words. It was also great to watch other thinkers and writers I admire talk about how much her work has meant to them. I learned a few things (she sees ghosts!), but it isn’t particularly probing. It’s a very nice 119 minutes.

Would you sit through this movie if the AC was broken? Yes, because that’s nothing compared to what Toni Morrison puts her characters through.

Date movie? Clearly a yes if you like Toni Morrison. Also a yes if your combined canvas tote bag count exceeds five.

While we’re here, top 3 Toni Morrison books? The Bluest Eye, obviously, for being equal parts savage and beautiful and giving a voice to black girlhood in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced since. Paradise for such a poignant and smart look at insularity annnnnnnd Beloved because it’s just a masterpiece.

Ideal snack for this viewing? Carrot cake.

Poster Design by Mickalene Thomas.

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor is the Editor of Clever. She can frequently be found knocking things over in the greater New York City area.

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