Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Movie Poster Image
Docu about legendary author has some violent imagery.
  • PG-13
  • 2019
  • 120 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Racism "has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people as it does on Black people." "If you can only be tall because somebody else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Morrison exhibits intelligence, strength, character, courage, artistic integrity, and grit in her work and her life.

Violence

Lynchings are cited and depicted. Racist practices dating back to slavery and continuing after emancipation, through Jim Crow laws, as well as institutionalized racism, segregation, and violence against Black people, are mentioned. Rape and incest are literary subjects.

Sex

The protagonist of a novel has an affair with her friend's husband. 

Language

The word "f--k" is spelled out partially.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Morrison smokes cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a 2019 documentary that looks at the life and thinking of the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning novelist, professor, and editor. Through interviews with critics, colleagues, friends, and admirers, as well as extensive sessions with Morrison, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders depicts a person of intellectual power, empathy, and humor. She proudly sees herself as a Black writer and a woman writer and doesn't see these labels as either limiting or marginalizing. Lynchings and other forms of racist violence are described in her work, and images of such violence are shown.  Rape and incest are literary subjects. The word "f--k" is spelled out partially. Morrison smokes cigarettes.

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What's the story?

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM looks at the life of the distinguished author of 11 novels who won a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1987 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Morrison showed America, white and Black, about the Black experience unfiltered through a "white gaze." White critics viewed her early books with condescension, calling them "narrow," by which they meant that she depicted a Black world that omitted the white world, which was exactly the point Morrison says she was trying to make. When someone compared her work unfavorably to novelist Ralph Elllison's Invisible Man, about a Black man whose life is shattered by experiences in the white world, Morrison pointedly asks, "Invisible to who?" That protagonist wasn't invisible to other Black people, only to the demeaning white world he faced. Her death in 2019 leaves behind a legacy that touched many students, writers, and readers. She was a professor at her alma mater Howard University and at Princeton University. As a Random House editor, she coaxed books out of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali, her personal mission to "bring other people of color to the party." She laments what she observes as a "master narrative" that guides society, something like an ideological script imposed by people in authority on everybody else. That's why some young Black girls prize white dolls and why some older Black women self segregate by skin tone, an experience Morrison had at the historically Black college Howard University, where she was invited to join a sorority that she later learned only accepted light-skinned Black women. The movie opened in June 2019; Morrison died of pneumonia two months later at the age of 88.

Is it any good?

This rich documentary about the acclaimed author and educator impressively captures a self possessed woman who is majestic, whip-smart, witty, insightful, self aware, and a little mischievous. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was featured on PBS's American Masters series in June 2019. In her buttery voice, Morrison explains why racism is a problem for white people. She cracks jokes and laughs at her own devilish thoughts. She doesn't hesitate to describe how hard she worked, clearly most proud of raising her two sons as a single mom and of her writing.

Writers and others, including Walter Mosley, Paula Giddings, Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, June Jordan, and Fran Lebowitz, join in with more praise. This movie will not only make you want to read every single one of Morrison's books, but it will also make you wish she had been your friend.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Morrison's efforts to present Black life unfiltered through what she calls the "white gaze" and how that seemed a radical way to write when she began in the 1970s. Why do you think it seemed unusual for her to write for a Black audience at the time?

  • How do you think being an editor and a professor might enhance someone's writing? How do you think being a writer could enhance the way someone teaches and edits?

  • How do you think Morrison's focus on fiction about Black people's lives might help different races find empathy for each other?

  • What role do you think Morrison's views on racism can play in the Black Lives Matter movement?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

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