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toni morrison: to love and be loved

May 29, 2019
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Literature has been my time machine. Toni Morrison, specifically, has been my guide — my mentor — during much of my time traveling. She has made possible experiencing certain eras that existed before I was born. Through the work of Morrison, an emotional layer of my Black history was created, a history that went beyond the factual and the recorded, bringing forth the imagination that serves the realities of Black life: womanhood, manhood, chattel slavery, colorism, poverty, triumph, ghosts, and love. There was always love.

If there is one powerful thing to learn about the Timothy Greenfield-Sanders-directed documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, it’s that the legendary laureate is loved. Each scene and interview moves us closer to the idea that what makes Morrison’s words land so heavily and poignantly isn’t the sheer talent and work ethic she brings to the page, but the love.

Towards the end of the film, there is a mediation on Pilot, Morrison’s character from Songs of Solomon, and a scene most recognizable to Morrison fans — when Pilot bursts through during a funeral and says, “She was loved!”

I first read this scene as a teenager and it was the first spiritual experience I had with literature. Not godly or religious, the height of my atheism was probably during this time, but in the sense that my emotional and psychic life had been shifted, cleansed, and forever changed. I could not be the same after reading these words. The words did more than I knew words could do; I wasn’t just educated, I was saved.

Discussing this widely loved literary scene in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who has her own specific creative history with Ms. Morrison: in 1998, Winfrey adapted Beloved into a film. The film is on Winfrey’s impressively short list of commercial failures, but even that failure was a success — or at least a confirmation. It confirmed that Morrison’s language surpassed the magic of film. Even with sound, aesthetic, and strategic marketing, no movie theatre could rival the deep horror and love Morrison’s words conjured. It confirmed the white mainstream’s critiques of her were untrue, she wasn’t limited by the matters of race, gender, or class: her work was freed by it. And it is the kind of freedom that can’t be translated from page to screen, unless Morrison herself decided to shift mediums.

Before seeing the documentary, I wasn’t sure if it was necessary for me, a Morrison fanatic, to witness it, if it would be anything more than organized information I already knew through my own research and engagement with her work. It is more than that. The documentary gathers evidence of her greatness — captivating performance of self that Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, and Oprah Winfrey gave during testimonies about Morrison’s greatness; excerpts of her theories on ‘white gaze’; and about her fiction — pushing the idea that Toni Morrison isn’t just a great American writer, but the great American writer.

It pushes us into doing what Morrison’s work has always begged us to do, to push out Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner as undebatable American greats. It suggests powerfully that our greatest writers are not dead, white men. The greatest American writer is Black, a woman, and very much alive. She did it through the sweat and patience it takes to be a great writer, without sacrificing the tenderness, closeness and love. Morrison became great by making love hard work and by making the righteous and the interesting, a thing to do. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a love letter to love about love.

As the credits roll, I think how Morrison is loved most of all because she decided long ago to love us fiercely on the page, when she speaks and where it counts the most: her imagination. We are loved.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is in theaters June 21, 2019.