“Part of the problem with Western feminists, I find, is that they take after their brothers and their fathers. And that’s a real problem.” – Alice Walker
Unabashed and unadulterated. This was Alice Walker; poised, decisively concise and fielding audience questions at the world premier of ‘Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth’ at London’s ‘Women Of the World’ Festival 2013.
The muted gasp that coursed through the packed auditorium that evening as Alice Walker; revered Muse of the American feminist movement, offered her unflinching take on the inconsistencies of ‘Western feminists’ reverberates bold and clear throughout director Pratibha Parmar’s feature length documentary on the life of one Alice Malsenior Walker. Boldly, Parmar’s film is a work of exaltation, not merely of Walker’s prolific repertoire as artist, activist, controversial Black feminist - but moreover, an emphatic appeal to the institution of public memory. In this, Parmar’s homage to Walker in ‘Beauty In Truth’ is symbolically a rebuttal of what she terms ‘historical amnesia.’ That Alice Walker has played so pivotal a role in shaping public discourse is deemed worthy of remembrance. That the narratives of women like Alice Walker are broadly excluded from the cinematic canon of American iconicism is director Pratibha Parmar’s personal protest mission.
For those so inclined, there’s a whisper of divine intervention to be read in the close proximity releases of ‘Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth’ and ‘Free Angela & All Political Prisoners,’ the forthcoming feature-length documentary by director Shola Lynch. With both projects helmed by women of colour directors, and with Angela Y. Davis as the ever-present contributor to both films (and also previously the focus of Pratibha Parmar’s 1991 documentary ‘A Place Of Rage’), there’s a distinct sense of thematic revival intensifying around political discourses of Black womanhood and the desire to see expansive representations of women of colour embodied in contemporary American screen-culture. Through this new cinematic rediscovery of womanist narratives via Alice Walker and Angela Davis, there is perhaps a connected critical mass that helps to contextualise the recent runaway successes of women-centered projects from directors Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees to Issa Rae’s ‘Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,’ all the way to the polarizing phenomena of Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal.’
Alice Walker herself notes in ‘Beauty In Truth’ the significance of “Black women’s efforts to make beauty in a world that denies that they have anything to do with beauty.” It’s a telling statement of intent from the artist, whose own voice is deliberately central in narrating her life story; albeit through Parmar’s directorial lens. Seamlessly interspersed with Walker’s first person narrative are intimate testimonials from those closest to her inner circle. Here, the poet Sonia Sanchez, feminist Gloria Steinem, activist Angela Y. Davis, historian Howard Zinn, the novelist Sapphire and Walker’s ex-husband Melvyn R. Leventhal weave a complex collective collage of the many facets of Alice Walker: daughter of Georgia’s brutal Jim Crow regime who defied the racism of rural poverty to become a Pulitzer-prize winning writer, who challenged gender-inequity through feminist scholarship; protested segregation, anti-miscegenation laws and championed the Black Power movement within the context of marital union with a Jewish-American husband.
If the complexity of an artist’s private life is said to mirror the content of their art, then it’s worth noting whom in ‘Beauty In Truth,’ Alice Walker cites as her most influential literary forebear. For Walker, it is in reading Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston that she first derives a “sense of Black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” And Alice Walker is candid with her complexity. She quips of having married inter-racially not merely for love, but in righteously indignant protest against laws at that time which sought to forbid it. When Walker speaks of such social constraints as incongruous to her being- it’s reflected further in her aversion to labels and an unwillingness to define her amorous partnerships with both men and women (subsequent to the break-up of her first marriage) as anything other than fluid explorations of spiritual companionship.
When Alice Walker recalls the furious hostility she met with upon release of the film adaptation of her novel ‘The Color Purple,’ (most neatly summed up by the infamous retort of one journalist Tony Brown, who claimed that anyone who liked the movie was either a “closet homosexual, a lesbian, a pseudo-intellectual or white,” the pain of recollection is visible. Walker speaks of spells of illness that followed this period, her need to retreat further from gaze and the lingering wound of feeling as though in the five years following ‘The Color Purple,’ she had no “defenders.”
In ‘Beauty In Truth,’ Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg are all present and poignant in artistic defense of Alice Walker’s right to be heard. Memorable too is the affirmation from actor Danny Glover; who inverts the perception of Walker’s work as ‘man-hating’ with his opposing notion that “Celie’s liberation and Mister’s liberation are intrinsically connected.”
The Alice Walker who now revels in a life conspicuously outside the public gaze, seems decidedly at peace rearing chickens on a remote ranch, between time spent writing and continuing commitments to various global activist causes. She’s vocal in deferring to the mediating forces of time and nature when asked to evaluate her pain and her conflicts. Of the very public estrangement from her only child Rebecca and her longing for the grandson she has yet to meet, Alice Walker shares abstract recollection of the relationship with her own mother. She recognises as individual, artist and mother, a woman who seldom offered verbal declaration of love, yet through whom Alice not only knew she was loved, but resolved to understand motherly love as a gesture of devoted “sacrifice” and universality beyond a singular act of giving birth.
If Pratibha Parmar’s documentary on the life’s work of Alice Walker is the director’s invitation to exalt with connected, layered complexity the artist, the activist, the woman, the person of colour as cultural icon, - then the parting words of Alice Walker invoke a simpler message of connectedness to her own art, her beauty and her truth. In Walker’s words:“Earth was meant for joy. And as an artist, connect with that joy. And you will be forever fed by it.” –
(Quote : ‘Women and Revolution,’ Race, Sex and Class: The Clash Over The Color Purple by Don Alexander and Christine Wright, Issue 34, Spring 1988, p.19)
Images: Alice Walker Illustration/ artist: David Levine, 1987.
Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth trailer: