I am one of those readers who stopped reading modern serious fiction when Truman Capote died. As a writer with multiple deadlines crowding the day, I’ve been guilty of overlooking the popular, great and very serious Toni Morrison.

My wife has read Morrison’s work, and my daughters are devoted fans.

So, when I was assigned to cover the recent Magnolia Pictures’ documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” beautifully directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, I had to rush to catch up on everything about her. It turned out to be pretty easy, almost every critic in the world has written about her.

This is what I saw when I viewed the film, and this is what I learned from reading a plethora of great American writers and critics, and especially facts covered in writer Tim Appelo’s wonderful piece in the online AARP magazine.

“The Pieces I Am” begins with two young black hands, putting together a collage of pieces of material, old and new photographs, pieces of wallpaper, magazines, cloth, with a violin background, then adding pieces of Morrison’s older face, until there she is in real life sitting in a chair, a large black woman with a serious look on her face that occasionally breaks into a smile.

She sits quietly in a couple of gray sweaters, while the music goes from violin to piano, and then a jazz saxophone, bringing in the taste of her early years. We see right away the face of a woman who has been there and seen it all, who, putting pencil to pads of legal paper, produced electric images that ignited a worldwide fan crowd.

Between passages of her words, the screen is dappled with pictures of her home on the water in late afternoon and then evening, and she’s there again speaking to us, weaving the memories.

“My sister and I were playing on the sidewalk in front of the house. We were scratching out pictures and letters with a pebble. There was, a few feet down the sidewalk, a word someone had scratched, and we went and looked at it and copied it one letter at a time.

“First the F, and then the U, and at that moment, my mother came rushing out and made us take broom and wash cloth and rub the word out. But if a word could have that much power, then maybe she was on to something,” she adds.

Born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Toni Morrison, daughter of a steel mill worker whose mother cleaned the houses of white people, started arousing the interest of the publishing world with her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” and over the years has written a shelf of at least 29 books, including essays and several children’s books.

Of course, I was aware that Morrison was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize, and then to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but there was so much more I didn’t know about this power in the literary world.

There is scene after scene highlighting the love and respect from her students and famous friends, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, my particular favorite crime novelist Walter Mosley, social critic Fran Lebowitz and former first lady of the land, Michelle Obama.

Then we meet the mighty Oprah Winfrey, who made the 1998 film of her “Beloved.”

The best story of all in the film is about promoting Muhammed Ali’s book, “The Greatest: My Own Story.”

The two got off to a rocky start. Toni tells it with bursts of laughter.

“When I first met him and asked him a question, he would answer and look at a man and never looked directly at me while he was giving the answer. But then I remembered he respects older women,” Morrison recalls, saying she realized she should act more like his mother. “So I just crossed my arms as I walked in the room and said, ‘Ali, get up from there, you have something to do.’ And he would look up and recognize … a grown-up. And from then on, he did everything I said,” she chuckles.

Now, for all of you to watch and enjoy, Grammy-winner Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has put together this documentary, part of the PBS series “American Masters,” and it’s full of great pieces of a great American writer’s life and work.

 

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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