Toni Morrison — who died Monday at age 88 — broke barriers in her field, including being the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels — including Beloved, Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye — were about the struggles of African-Americans and she brought that experience to her readers, who felt represented and seen through her work.
While she had different champions along the way, Morrison — who started as a book editor at Random House, writing her own novels on the side — found a special one in Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey was so touched by 1987’s Beloved — inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her own daughter rather than return her to the horrors of slavery — that she made it her mission to have the book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, adapted into a movie. It took 10 years, but it happened — with Winfrey (who played the mom, Sethe), Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the starring roles.
On Tuesday, Winfrey paid tribute to the woman she called “Empress-Supreme among writers.” And “a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them. It is exhilarating and life-enhancing every time I read and share her work.”
In 1998, when Beloved came out, Winfrey told the Baltimore Sun she had read the book in one sitting. She was one year into The Oprah Winfrey Show, which debuted in 1986, and although it was her pre-book club days, she was still a voracious reader and set aside a day at her Chicago penthouse just to read the tome.
"When I put that book down, I couldn't even articulate what it was I was feeling," Winfrey told the paper. Talking with movie critic Roger Ebert around the same time, she said she had been touched by the slave experience deeper than ever before.
Immediately, Winfrey knew she wanted to buy the rights, so she decided to call Morrison personally and directly to make her plea. But in the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which came out in June, it’s explained that Morrison’s number was unlisted. So Winfrey had to get creative — and did — by calling the local fire department and asking for it.
Winfrey had success and in the documentary Morrison recalled their initial conversation. “She said, 'Toni Morrison, this is Oprah Winfrey.’ I said, 'How did you get my number?'" Morrison said with a laugh.
Winfrey made her case — saying she thought Beloved was meant to be a movie and she was meant to play Sethe — but Morrison was initially skeptical. Assuming it was because Morrison wanted creative control, Winfrey told the Baltimore Sun that she offered to have her write the screenplay.
Morrison’s reply, Winfrey said was, “Never. Never. I don't want these people in my house again.'"
Winfrey also recalled to Ebert another funny part of that fated conversation with Morrison. She told her, “You know, I loved this book — but do people tell you they have to keep going over it?” Winfrey said, referring to confusing parts. Morrison shot back, “That, my dear, is called reading.”
Winfrey said that Morrison’s words just always resonated deep inside her— and she wanted to share them with the world.
“I wanted as many people who could hear my voice to understand the importance of her work,” Winfrey said in the doc, adding, that her “work shows us through pain all the myriad ways we can come to love. That is what she does. With some words on a page.”
Beloved on the big screen
While it took 10 years to get Beloved made, Winfrey continued to be Morrison’s big supporter. When the talk show queen launched her book club in 1996, one of the first books she got her millions of viewers to buy was Song of Solomon. Two years later, she recommended Paradise, two years after that, The Bluest Eye, and then two more years passed and Sula was on her list.
The New York Times talked about “The Oprah Effect” and its influence on consumers. Morrison — also a professor at Princeton — appeared on Winfrey’s show, including to have a master class to discuss Paradise. But it was more like pals sitting in a living room, complete with Gayle King.
Morrison was also responsible for one of Winfrey’s biggest aha moments on the show.
Winfrey spoke about some of the obstacles she faced making Beloved, including finding a director to bring it alive.
"I had a black director tell me he was already working on another project, and he didn't want this to be his first major film because he didn't want to be pigeonholed as doing a black film," Winfrey told the Baltimore Sun. "I had Jane Campion [The Piano] say to me she didn't know enough about the black experience, it would take too long for her to figure it out. Jodie Foster, who had done Toni Morrison as part of her thesis [at Yale University] didn't feel it could be a movie, just felt it was literary material."
Winfrey said after Foster said no, she thought maybe it was a sign to pull the plug. Then she decided to look for someone who shared her vision instead of someone who was black or female — and she decided on Jonathan Demme.
The film came out in October 1998 with Kimberly Elise, Dule Hill and LisaGay Hamilton also in the cast. While it was a box office bust, Winfrey and Morrison were all smiles at the premiere.
"To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake?" said Winfrey said in 2013 about adapting Beloved. "Was it a mistake to not try and make that a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. But at the time, I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book.”
She said it also “freed” her so that she now has less attachment to how critics and people receive her work.
She told the Baltimore Sun, "For me, doing [Beloved] was a gift, so every time anybody sees it, it's a gift to me. I feel deep passion for it, I feel like it was one of the reasons I was meant to be here, to create it.”
Through her life, Morrison remained one of Winfrey’s friends — yet also an idol in her eyes.
Winfrey represented Morrison at a dinner honoring the novelist in December — the writer was unable to attend herself. Winfrey gushed to the crowd that it’s “impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison. She is our conscience, she is our seer, she is our truth-teller.”
She went on to say that Morrison had the ability to both receive and reflect out pain. “The pain of being a woman, the pain of being a young brown girl obsessed with having blue eyes, the pain of yearning to be someone you’re not, the pain of loving a man who’s not worth it, or losing a man who is. The pain of our history.”
Winfrey called Morrison “the empress supreme of doing language” and said she was representing for her “Simply to say: Long. May. She. Reign.”
And Winfrey used many of those words again today in her social media tribute to Morrison.
Here’s the post in its entirety: “In the beginning was the Word. Toni Morrison took the word and turned it into a Song…of Solomon, of Sula, Beloved, Mercy, Paradise Love and more. She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller. She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them. It is exhilarating and life-enhancing every time I read and share her work. This pic was her first appearance on the Oprah Show. She was Empress-Supreme among writers. Long may her WORDS reign!”
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