Toni Morrison documentary screens at ICA

By Aliviah Jones
Capital News Service


RICHMOND – Poet, scholar and activist Nikki Giovanni feels the loss everyday of her best friend Toni Morrison.

Giovanni stood on stage at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University Wednesday and candidly told the audience how her friendship began with Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison, who died in early August at age 88.

“I picked up “The Bluest Eye” and I read it and I thought ‘Oh my God this is brilliant, I have to meet this woman,’” Giovanni said.

Then she did what most people don’t do when they finish an inspiring book. Giovanni walked across New York from her apartment ato Random House where Morrison was working. After Giovanni patiently waited, Morrison agreed to meet with her. They had a cup of coffee across the street, beginning a 40-year long friendship.

Giovanni led a post-discussion of the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” that screened to a packed auditorium in the ICA.

The film detailed what the black experience was like for Morrison as she journeyed through her upbringing in Lorain, Ohio, education at Howard University and then Cornell University, on to a critically-lauded literary career authoring 11 novels. Morrison was the first African American female editor at Penguin Random House and the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1993. 

The film peered into Morrison’s life through first-hand interviews with Morrison and other notable literary figures such as Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz and Sonia Sanchez.

ICA film curator Enjoli Moon, who also founded the Afrikana Film Festival taking place in Richmond this weekend, said the museum was already interested in screening the film. When Morrison died in August, hosting the event transitioned into an honor. 

“I’m excited to be able to present this film, something that I think will help to elevate her legacy,” said Moon.

The two-hour documentary directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders was released in June. 
The theme of sisterhood weaves throughout the film, highlighting moments shared between Morrison and Oprah Winfrey and with civil rights activist Angela Davis. Morrison convinced Davis to write an autobiography shortly after she was found not guilty of murder. 

Giovanni misses the sisterhood; she misses long talks on the phone with Morrison.

She said Morrison’s success will live on through her literature, and hopes that one day Morrison’s life is made into a biopic.

“Reading Toni Morrison is like reading the New Testament over and over,” Giovanni said. “You start to look at everything very, very differently.” 

Morrison’s commentary in the film elicited laughter and tears from the audience. She discussed her experience working in an industry dominated by white men. She also said she was critized for writing about slavery and being African American. 

The film kicked off the second season of ICA Cinema, which screens films by independent filmmakers at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month.