Toni Morrison in a scene from “The Pieces I Am.” Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“I think I write well. And I think I have a distinctive voice.” – Toni Morrison, upon being asked about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993

“Damn straight.” – me, now

When author Toni Morrison died Aug. 5, the new documentary about her life and work, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” had just been released. It played at the usual spots around town, most notably and appropriately PMA Films, Portland’s exquisitely curated arthouse venue at the Portland Museum of Art. And now it’s back, thanks to the curator, Jon Courtney, who no doubt figures Morrison’s death (from pneumonia at age 88) will bring out people who missed the film the first time or need to see it again. (Courtney, ever the mensch, generously offers up that in addition to the screenings Friday through Wednesday at the PMA, Frontier in Brunswick also is rescreening director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary Sept. 13-19.)

As a film, “The Pieces I Am” isn’t much different from a lot of the artist-focused documentaries you’ve seen. Lots of talking heads from writers, admirers and colleagues (authors Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz and Russell Banks, plus Oprah Winfrey, who produced and starred in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 adaptation of Morrison’s novel “Beloved”), interspersed with archival footage of Morrison herself, and new interviews with Morrison shot for the film. (Slyly, Greenfield-Sanders appears to cut around since-disgraced talk show host Charlie Rose in airing pieces of Morrison’s memorable 1998 appearance on Rose’s show.) Historians and academics talk about Morrison’s place in the American literary tradition, while anecdotes about her life touch on her poor childhood in Ohio, her experiences as a student and then faculty member at Howard University (plus Princeton, Yale, and elsewhere), and her groundbreaking position as editor at Random House, where she helped shepherd other black authors like Angela Davis into print. (A major gripe is how the film barely mentions any of Morrison’s work past the 1992 novel “Jazz.”)

But the movie has a gift, and that’s Morrison. Soft-voiced in her recent interviews for the documentary, the author, educator and activist’s words (speaking to the camera or reading passages from works like “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye”) simply refuse to blend into the film’s predictably professional background. (She’s also irrepressibly charming, with a light little giggle at memories of stealing “colored only” signs in the Jim Crow South and mailing them to her mother, or throwing off her restricted childhood to reminisce about being happily “loose” as a Howard student.) If you’re a writer – one worth anything anyway – Morrison’s prose is aspirational. Or would be, if you could ever imagine replicating it. I can’t and wouldn’t try. And like the well-meaning and enthusiastic talking heads (other than Morrison herself) in the film, anything I have to say about what Morrison’s works truly mean, or even just mean to me, is doomed to come up short. Just read the books.

But “The Pieces I Am” leaves plenty of space for Morrison to speak for herself, a balm for anyone still bereft over the news of her death. Especially in a nation that could use Morrison’s wisdom, as when she describes racism’s cause, and cost. (“Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? That there’s something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste. It’s a corruption and it’s a neurosis … What are you without racism?”)

Morrison’s self-evaluation that leads off this column is as spot-on as it is inadequate to encapsulate Morrison’s artistic or social significance. Better are the things she chooses to explain about the periphery of her life and career in the film. How she, as a girl, mocked her uncle’s constant brag about having read the Bible all the way through multiple times – until she came to realize that was the only book in the house, and that for black Americans at the time, reading was itself a subversive act. “Reading is confrontational,” she assures us, and then goes on to lay out just how her work mesmerizingly confronted a whole lot that had been unspoken and unexamined.

Again, nobody needs a middle-aged white guy to explain what Toni Morrison’s life and work mean. The film shows how the Washington Post’s announcement of Morrison’s Nobel win gave space to several male authors to inevitably call the honor a result of “political correctness” and gripe about Morrison’s work not being fair to white people and men. (Guess what, fellas. A quarter-century later, Morrison’s books are still in places of honor on my bookshelves. I vaguely remember your names.)

And while the film’s gathered admirers all provide powerful-sounding quotes about Morrison’s significance (“She’s the Emancipation Proclamation of the English language” rhapsodizes one), the writer in me is more taken by the simple instruction Morrison gave to her creative writing students. “I do not want you to write anything about your little life … I want you to invent.” Speaking of Morrison’s unique gift in that area, one academic stresses her ability to draw from the “broken” history of a people and transform it with her mind (in “Beloved”) into a narrative of slavery that is both universal and gut-wrenchingly individual to Sethe, the book’s indelible protagonist.

There’s now a necessary and inevitable elegiac quality to “The Pieces I Am” that seeks to add resonance to what’s already a deeply felt and ultimately inspiring movie. But the film is, itself, so buoyed by the voice (fictional and actual) of Toni Morrison, that its two hours stream by, leaving the evocative hunger of a really good novel for more.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” screens starting 2 and 6 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday at PMA Films. Tickets are $9, $7 for members and students with I.D. For more information, go to portlandmuseum.org/movies.


Comments are not available on this story.