Toni Morrison documentary cries out for more

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

It's somewhat impressive that you come away from the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” loving Toni Morrison, since the film tells little about its subject beyond her groundbreaking work.

The movie is very good at demonstrating the power and perspective of the Nobel prize-winning writer. What it's not so good at is telling us who that Nobel prize winning writer is. After two full hours of hearing about a career you long for some particulars about the person having that career.

There are some basics. Vague background about her family's move from the south to Ohio, where Morrison grew up. Memories of a childhood in a melting pot town. A brief marriage – to who, for how long, where'd he go? – and her raising of two sons (who do what now?).

I mean, what does this woman do for a good time? Where does she go on vacation? Does she have any relationships? Nobody's looking for gossip but some details might make us appreciate Morrison even more.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” is very good at demonstrating the power and perspective of the Nobel prize-winning writer.

As is, there's certainly plenty to appreciate. Morrison was an English teacher who landed a job – through a newspaper ad! -- as an editor for a publisher in upstate New York. That company was bought and she found herself working for a publishing giant in New York City.

So she started writing herself, and found enormous success describing black people outside the “white gaze” or context that influenced most black writers. At the same time she was editing works by other black authors.

She was a single black mother in her early 40s when she found big time success in the 1970s, hardly an overnight sensation.

A parade of amiable talking heads discuss Morrison's importance and impact, which is all very fine if predictable. What makes the film worth watching, though, is Morrison herself, interviewed in flashbacks and recently, well into her 80s and still formidable, engaged and delightful.

If the film is both linear – then came this book, then came this book – and plainly adoring, it also gives you ample reason for that adoration. You certainly end up admiring Toni Morrison, but also aching to know a bit more about her.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”


Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images/thematic material

Running time: 120 minutes