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Arguments for Greatness – Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

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By John Duncan Talbird.

In 1988, Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, won the Pulitzer Prize. Five years later, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first black woman of any nationality to win it. It seemed to be the final bullet fired in the US Culture Wars that sprang up in the wake of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (both 1987). Hirsch and Bloom, coming from different political standpoints (though each seemed to think he was a liberal) argued that “great books” were under siege at American universities. Both books were best sellers and the inspiration for a decade’s-worth of polemics from the American right, most notably Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennet (1985-1988). The gist of the argument was that Shakespeare, Milton, Aristotle and all the other dead white men that used to be so revered were being replaced by a bunch of subpar women writers and writers of color. When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize it seemed to shut many of these commentators up, at least for a while (there’s apparently another culture war going on now; nothing ever goes away completely). A few grousers complained that her award was just “political correctness,” but the vast majority of the thoughtful reading public recognized that a sea change had taken place. Despite all the handwringing, the left had never wanted to kill William Shakespeare or ban the canon, just to crack it open to let other voices in to be heard.

toni-morrison-03In the new documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, she talks about the importance of literary prizes. Related to this, Sonia Sanchez, poet and one of several people interviewed in the film, shares an anecdote about James Baldwin. In the final years of his life, he was lamenting the lack of recognition he had received for his work and, amazed, Sanchez said, “Jimmy, I teach your books, everyone is teaching your books.” And he said, “I’m not talking about teaching my books. I’m talking about awards.” This story seems to be important because it reminds us that Morrison has won the Nobel, has won the Pulitzer, among other American and European cultural recognitions. But now, as I write this, I wonder why we need to be reminded. Doesn’t everyone know this? Doesn’t everyone know that Toni Morrison is one of the greatest living writers of any ethnicity? I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much celebrated and discussed Between the World and Me, that the author said in interviews that the only blurb he cared about getting was that of Toni Morrison’s (he got it). No one asked Coates why Toni Morrison’s endorsement was so important to him. Of course, he would want her name on his book. But the documentary still seems to be making an argument for her greatness. Do we need to argue about this and, if so, why?

A fiction writer myself, I often wonder what winning the Nobel must do to your writing. When I was younger, like a lot of writers, I imagined what I would say at my Nobel acceptance speech. Now that I don’t fantasize about winning the prize, I wonder how writers write after they’ve won it. Once you’ve won the biggest prize in writing, once you’ve been told by the intelligentsia that your work is, essentially, Literature with a big L, what kind of pressure does that put on your upcoming work? Morrison has written five novels and several nonfiction and children’s books since then. She’s won many other awards and achievements since then, too, but those seldom get reported on the front page of The New York Times.

The film is directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a friend and frequent photographer of Morrison, and is full of information for even those who, like myself, feel that we already know about her work and career. For instance, I knew that she was an editor at Random House in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I had no idea that she worked there as late as 1981, after her first four books had already come out, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Song of Solomon (1977). The Pieces I Am also educates the viewer about the incredible influence Morrison had on African American publishing in the sixties. She knew what the clueless white-and-male-dominated New York publishing industry didn’t, that there was a large reading public out there wanting to read books by black authors. She published books by Angela Davis (who is interviewed in the film), Toni Cade Bambara, and Muhammad Ali. Much of this information has already been covered in the 2003 New Yorker essay by Hilton Als (who is also interviewed in the film).

The most arresting aspect of the documentary is the cinematography of still artwork by a variety of famous African American artists. The paintings and prints of Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Rashid Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Charles White and many other artists are featured without commentary, the camera lingering and flowing lovingly over the images, letting them act as transitions between speakers, between archival footage and images. It’s disappointing that there’s not more in the film that is this innovative. Early on, captivated by Morrison’s deep voice, her wonderful storytelling abilities, I thought, “It’s a shame that James Baldwin wasn’t alive when they made a documentary about him.” But by the time I reached the end of The Pieces I Am, I was beginning to revise that feeling. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a brilliant film, a film which stands as a work of art. You reach the end of that documentary – which is a lean hour-and-a-half – and you immediately want to watch it again. Greenfield-Sanders’ film, long at two hours, not so much. I checked my watch (never a good sign) at around the hour mark when he had just gotten to Sula. It seemed that he was going book by book and I was counting the other books in my head – Jazz, Paradise, Love – and groaning. I was then relieved when the film ended at about the time that Morrison won the Nobel. Peck’s film, using Baldwin’s unpublished and unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, as a starting point, can more impressionistically address Baldwin’s work without ponderously, book by book, making the argument for his greatness. If you’re in the theater, you know it already. The same should be said of Morrison.

e6697c8a-84c1-42fa-8215-007da58443a4-GTY_SANDBURG_AWARDSThe interviews of those besides Morrison are also mostly quite impersonal. Hilton Als and Farah Griffin’s interviews are excellent, but they’re both professional critics and used to writing and talking about literature. Oprah Winfrey also has great stories to share about Morrison, especially an anecdote about calling the famously private author at home after reading Beloved and saying that she wanted to make a film adaptation of the novel. Only Toni Morrison would have the hutzpah to respond to the most powerful figure in the literary world, “How’d you get this number?” The comments by famous writers – Walter Mosley, Sonia Sanchez, Russell Banks – are mostly superficial and workmanlike. Some will wonder why Russell Banks, out of all writers, is being interviewed about Morrison’s writing. The film doesn’t tell you that they were colleagues at Princeton. In fact, the film tells you very little about Morrison’s life now, as she lives it. We know she gets up at four in the morning to write, but very little else. There’s some repetitious made-for-TV cinematography of her back porch, but we’re not even invited inside the house. Of the twelve people interviewed, only two, Sonia Sanchez and Fran Lebowitz, give us any personal insight into Morrison as a person. I suppose Morrison herself gives us that in her own interviews, but that creates a monotonous feel to be talked at for two hours straight by one person, even as lively a storyteller as she is. There is some interesting stop-and-start jazz at the opening of the film by Kathryn Bostic. But after that, her score is pretty bland and sinks into the background. I realize that it can be expensive to secure rights to real songs, but I can’t help but think about how wonderful it would have been to score the film with classic jazz compositions, especially since the film is so rich with African American visual art. African Americans had to take their place in the worlds of letters and visual arts by force which is probably why we need documentaries to remind us of their significance. But African Americans essentially created – in whole or in part – most forms of American 20th century music. That’s probably why one of Morrison’s most famous novels is titled Jazz (1992).

The Pieces I Am is not a terrible film which is not really what I’d like to be writing of a documentary about one of our best and most important writers. People need to be reminded that as recently as the generation of Toni Morrison’s grandfather, it was illegal in some places for black people to read. (He was proud that he’d read the Bible five times.) We need to be reminded of the prevalence of the white gaze. We live in a difficult time for African Americans in the US where our president openly praises neo-Nazis as “very fine people” and a white cop pretty much has to be caught on film shooting a fleeing, unarmed black man in the back to see any jail time. We need to be reminded of the cultural debt that we owe to our greatest black writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has been friends with Morrison for nearly forty years. Perhaps he’s too close to his subject. Perhaps she was too involved in the making of this film. I think of that academic colon in the title, its first-person perspective. Even the title is trying too hard. Perhaps the real Toni Morrison documentary has yet to have been made.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

Read also:

The Passion of James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro

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