How lucky we are that just when the amazing Toni Morrison has passed, we have an insightful documentary about her life and work to remind us who she is and what she means to us playing in theaters throughout the country. If you’ve ever read one of her novels and fallen in love with her story telling, make time to see this film now.
The film opens with Morrison reciting her poem “The Pieces I am,” and then goes on to tell us about her life in her own words, as well as through interviews with Angela Davis (whom she edited for Random House), Fran Lebowitz (who surprised me to learn was one of her best friends – she attended the Novel Prize ceremony with Morrison in Sweden), Walter Mosley, Robert Gottlieb (her editor at Knopf) and Oprah Winfrey, among others.
The documentary opens with Morrison talking about how proud her grandfather was that he read the Bible every day, and continues to remind us that when he was born, it was against the law for black people to read, and that white people were not allowed to teach them to do so. Morrison then tells us that her sister taught her to read at three (her sister went on to become a librarian and got Toni her first job in a library when she was in high school), and the two of them were so in love with words that they decided to write this new word they had seen on the path in front of their home. Their mother came out as they had written the first two letters, “F U” and their mother went nearly crazy. Morrison said that was when she learned that “words have power.”
Later in the documentary, Morrison tells the story of a framed letter that she has mounted in her bathroom from a prison informing her that her novel Paradise was banned because it might start a riot. “How powerful is that?” she asks us.
Sitting on the deck of her home overlooking the Hudson River in New York, the older Morrison reflects on writing by telling us that she “gets up before the sunrises. [It’s] the best time of the day, I want to beat the sun. I work every morning for three or four hours. I got up early to write because I had small children.” She added that she was “not enthusiastic about writing after lunch or at night.”
She published her first book in 1973, The Bluest Eye, “When I wrote The Bluest Eye I was writing a book that I wanted to read.”
She told the story of a childhood friend who said God did not exist because she had been praying for blue eyes for two years and he never gave them to her. “This kind of racism hurts. This is interior pain, so deep. The master narrative.” Morrison asked herself, “How does a child learn self loathing? Where does it come from?”
Critics have said that she was talented, but wondered when was she going to write about “real” people, meaning white culture and people, to which she responded, “ I spent my entire writing life trying to ensure that the white gaze was not the dominant one.”
The documentary seamlessly takes us through her education at Howard and Cornell, her single mother years, her job as an editor at Random House, her teaching at Princeton, and the long road to elder stateswoman of American letters, with both humor and righteous anger.
We also learn that she made a mean carrot cake that I hope I can find the recipe to somewhere on the Internet.
The documentary ends with Oprah Winfrey talking about the novel Beloved (which she produced as a movie and starred in), which is about an escaped slave who kills her own children to prevent them from living a life in slavery. Beloved is the ghost of the child she killed.
Oprah says of Morrison, “And she was loved. That is the anthem for any life well lived.”