Poet and novelist Alice Walker tells her story to Pratibha Parmar. She retraces her steps from her birth in the segregated South to a black sharecropper family to a well earned place in the American literary firmament, with many stops along the way. Parmar invited Walker’s friends and colleagues to comment on each chapter of the story, adding their perspective and memories. The happy result is Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, a documentary produced and directed by Parmar. It was recently screened at the annual Athene Film Festival at Barnard College and shown on PBS.
The Athene Film Festival celebrates women and leadership. Most of the films are made by women and tell the stories of strong women who leave an impression on the world they inhabit.
Alice Walker is such a woman. Activist, author, poet — she wears many hats — Walker has participated in and written about every important civil rights issue from segregation in the U.S. to genocide in Africa and competing rights in Palestine. Her best known work, The Color Purple, won the coveted Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Many of the people who came to know Walker along her journey strived for justice in their own ways with her. A few of these are her professor, the late activist and historian Howard Zinn; her first husband, civil rights activist and lawyer Melvyn Leventhal; colleagues like Gloria Steinem; Steven Spielberg, who directed the screen adaptation of The Color Purple; actor and activist Danny Glover. They provide perspective on Walker’s achievements with affection and admiration.
There is, of course, much to admire. The long series of acclaimed books, the poetry and her travels all over the world when she put herself on the line to help right some wrong, as in Rwanda and Congo.
The film reflects Walker’s love of the natural world and gardens especially, a love she says she imbibed with her mother’s milk. Stills and clips of flowers, water, trees, grass and birds provide visuals for some of the voice-overs and transitions between the passages. Parmar also uses vintage photos, newspaper clippings, letters and manuscripts to illustrate the events that Walker recounts.
Lines of Walker’s poetry also introduce the topic that will follow. But I found it disconcerting on those occasions when the off-screen narrator’s words didn’t match the text on the screen. I wanted to listen and I wanted to read, and I was frustrated when I couldn’t do both.
The indomitable Walker didn’t shirk from controversy. “People had a problem with my disinterest in submission, and they had a problem with my intellect, and they had a problem with my choice of lovers … they just had a problem with everything,” she says. Walker’s courage was forged on the anvil of the civil rights movement. She has said that seeing Martin Luther King being arrested, his determination to change a situation at whatever cost, was a life-changing experience.
The Color Purple is probably the best known of Walker’s books. It was the first of her works to generate conflict. While the white establishment was heaping accolades on both the novel and the film, The Color Purple was being picketed by (mostly) black men. In it Walker was forcing black men to look at themselves and the pain that black people exact upon each other when no white man is to blame. Parmar gives these protesters their say in stills, video clips and sound bites. The episode was very painful, Walker says, but “Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.”
She suffered a different kind of pain when she heard the screams of young African girls as they were being cut. They impelled Walker to write Possessing the Secret of Joy, which made people aware of female genital mutilation. Critics, including women, condemned Walker and feminism in general for passing judgement on a practice that was part of a culture they believed outsiders were not entitled to evaluate. Years later, other women followed Walker’s lead, and now many fewer girls are subjected to the knife.
Parmar and Walker don’t elide the personal pain that cuts into everyone’s life, perhaps even more into the lives of celebrities.
Music and art soften the dark interludes of Walker’s life. She talks about her suffering, always speaking in the same even, calm and composed manner. Music plays, water flows, birds soar and flowers nod in the breeze, implying that she has learned to let go of the difficult times of the past.
One imagines that the darkest of these is the difficulties Walker has had with her daughter, Rebecca. In the film, Walker talks about losing her daughter, not to death, but to “a death-in-life situation.” At the time of the interview, she had never met her grandson. Parmar shows newspaper clippings of articles Rebecca published, complaining that her mother cruelly neglected her, that she cared only for her own career. Rebecca’s father, divorced by Walker when Rebecca was 8 years old, is shown gently chiding his former wife. He acknowledges that she would become completely immersed in her work while writing a book, shutting out everything else, and that she would disappear on trips to promote her latest book. But he doesn’t reprove her. He knows she did what she had to do.
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth lives up to its name. Parmar has assembled a visually stunning film. The clips, photographs and narrations have been skillfully edited to make a coherent whole. The evocation of Keats in the title is a reminder that including the whole truth, warts and all, is more satisfying than a shiny lie. The Color Purple helped us understand the plight of women and black women in particular. And the compelling truth of Alice Walker is the cost of great achievement. It is rarely attained without personal sacrifice.
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is available for streaming from the video archive of PBS .
Photo: promo for Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth