When Toni Morrison died in 2019, she left a lot behind. Along with some serious contenders for the title of The Great American Novel, and the gift of inspiration for countless writers who came after her, there’s this quietly reverential documentary.
New footage of the writer telling the story of her life is used alongside old interviews. We begin with the importance of books to Morrison and her working-class Ohio family, and how her grandfather read the Bible despite laws restricting the literacy of black Americans. Morrison herself worked alongside her sister in a library before leaving for Howard University. She sold baked goods to faculty members, acted in plays, and noticed that only white authors were taught. She also saw segregation in practice for the first time, and was stunned – she stole “Colored” and “White” signs to send home to her mother as proof.
These anecdotes are combined with news footage to contextualise Morrison’s writing with the volatile times she lived through, as well as the scandals her own writing caused over the years. After teaching at Howard and getting married, she became an editor in New York, working with figures in the civil rights movement like Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. As for her own writing, she would scribble down ideas whenever she found time, between her day job and her home life as a single parent of two. Touchingly, Morrison had a rule about never closing the door when she was writing, so that she wouldn’t become alienated from her boys.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from portraying how her early writing was criticised for “limiting” itself to black issues, and endlessly compared to the few other canonised black authors. Morrison explains how she fought against the white gaze, and the idea that her writing had to address white readers to justify its existence. She was more interested in exploring how a child “learns self-loathing”, or learns to pray for blue eyes.
Although she would eventually achieve the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as Presidential Medal of Freedom, the documentary also covers how long it took any major national awards to recognise her, and how black writers protested the literary establishment on her behalf. A laughing Morrison recalls how she thought her Nobel Prize was a prank, and newspaper extracts show the backlash against her success.
Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Hilton Als, her editor Robert Gottlieb, Fran Lebowitz and others appear with their own well-thumbed copies of The Bluest Eye or Sula. These interviews discuss what lies behind the worldwide appeal of her books: their focus on pedestrian suffering, the complex friendships between women, the balance of specificity and universality. This popularity is despite topics that author Walter Mosley calls “scorched earth”. “Who would want to live a Toni Morrison novel?” he asks.
Possibly her best known work is Beloved, and Morrison explains here how its brutal story was inspired by a short article about Margaret Garner, a real woman who killed her children rather than see them grow up into slavery. Oprah Winfrey talks about adapting it as a film, and recollects how she phoned the police and fire department in order to get Morrison’s number, because she was so desperate to talk to her about her books.
You understand why the author would be compelling to talk to. For all the intellectual content, the most rewarding part of this documentary is the presence of Morrison herself – her infectious laugh, her famous carrot cake, her joyful love of parties. A stirring atmosphere is created through striking artwork by contemporary African-American artists, from Kara Walker to Rashid Johnson, as well as original music by Kathryn Bostic.
The documentary closes by fading out on Morrison’s face, and reminding the viewer of an iconic line from her first commercial success, Song of Solomon: “And she was loved!” This fascinating, intimate exploration of her life shows us why.