A documentary by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Rated PG
Recently deceased at 88, but here commanding the camera with clear eye and melodious voice, Toni Morrison was perhaps the least cryptic of interview subjects. Despite the raw anger expressed in fierce novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved, her own presence was voluble and easily amused.
“If you don’t laugh, you don’t survive,” she says at one point in this two-hour overview from photographer turned filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who also made long-form docs about Lou Reed, among others.
The most serious downs were really experienced by Morrison’s parents, growing up poor and black in the Jim Crow South, from which they narrowly escaped.
The writer was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in the integrated, working-class town of Lorain, Ohio. A place of vast potential and mutable identity, it offered endless opportunities to read Tolstoy, Austen, and Faulkner and develop her future classroom skills.
The name Toni, referring to St. Anthony, arrived with her conversion to Catholicism at age 12. Morrison came via her brief marriage to a Jamaican architect, after a stint at historically black Howard University, in Washington, DC., where she first learned about segregation.
She later worked as a teacher and editor, ending up with a senior position at Random House, in Manhattan, where she actively championed black writers long before her bosses realized she was sharpening her own novelistic pen before coming to work.
Plenty of colleagues and supporters show up, with Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, and Walter Mosely testifying to her core vision, which replaced the colonizer’s perspective with what’s seen by unapologetically African eyes. Her body of work netted her the Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (when that still meant something). But surviving friends single out her carrot cake as legendary.
The film’s kaleidoscopic use of images pertaining to slavery and its aftermath constitute a provocation and a catalogue of Morrison’s many triumphs.
In the end, this rousing documentary celebrates the acts of writing and reading, and of language itself as an immortal expression of innate humanness.