There’s a powerful moment in PBS’s “American Masters” documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” that highlights a 1973 New York Times criticism of “Sula.”
“Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous reporter of the black side of provincial American life,” reads one line from the review.
Recalling that review, Morrison says: “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
It’s just one in a string of powerful moments woven throughout Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary about the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and activist.
The film premiered on WGBH this week, but it’s also available for free on www.pbs.org/tonimorrison and the PBS Video App though June 30.
“Toni was a visionary,” Greenfield-Sanders said in a recent phone interview. “She’s a monumental figure. She’s as relevant in Japan as she is in Boston.”
Featuring interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, and others, the two-hour documentary sheds light on Morrison, from her ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali, to her work as one of the first Black editors at Random House.
“I knew Toni Morrison for 38 years. I was asked to do her portrait in 1981 for [a New York weekly when] Toni was promoting ‘Tar Baby.’ I remember her being extremely confident as a subject. … She was smoking a pipe,” Greenfield-Sanders recalled with a laugh.
“In 2014 or so, I reached out to see if she’d allow me to consider doing a documentary — and she didn’t say no.”
A major theme of Morrison’s life work was fighting the idea of “the white gaze,” said the photographer/filmmaker. She knew “everything should not be from a white perspective.”
As an editor, she got “an enormous number of African-Americans and people of color … published,” he added. “It was a great lesson she taught us: Do what you can where you are.”