In her Own Words

02.07.14

Pratibha Parmar Brings Alice Walker's Art to Life

She speaks on her documentary and unwavering friendship with Walker.

Pratibha Parmar, a writer, director, and producer has always had a passionate commitment to telling human stories that illuminate experiences rarely seen in the mainstream. Born in Nairobi, Parmar moved to London at age 11 and worked as a youth-community worker with young Asian women before making documentaries on genital mutilation and the African-American women of the Civil Rights Movement. Most recently she directed "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth" celebrating the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In honor of Walker's 70th birthday and Black History Month, Women In the World spoke with Parmar about retelling Walker's words.

Women in the World: What was it about Alice Walker specifically that inspired you to make this documentary?

Pratibha Parmar: This film comes from my impulse to fill the gaping void in representations of women as history-makers and as public intellectuals. Alice's courageous and unwavering commitment to truth, justice and above all to her own path is a huge inspiration. Having known Alice Walker as a friend and a collaborator for a few decades, I have constantly been in awe of her commitment to her art and her instinct and humanity for speaking out about injustices and human rights abuses around the world, no matter what the consequences on her personally. This is something I wanted to share with the world through this film.

WITW: At the beginning of the documentary, Walker says, "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 . Choose one. Choose all. They just had a problem." Why was Walker so vilified over her art and personal views?

PP: Whenever someone speaks out about uncomfortable and unconscionable acts of inhumanity, it challenges people to look at their own complicity in such acts. Whenever an individual like Alice Walker pushes the envelope and breaks taboos so that the injustices inflicted upon women's lives or the lives of disenfranchised people of all over the world are illuminated, they are risking the wrath of all those with personal and political interests in continuing with the censorship, misinformation and corrupt power.

WITW: How much of this vilification is because she's a woman? Do you think she would have faced as much scrutiny and criticism for her books and personal choices if she was a man?

PP: I think your question tells me you know the answer! Women are not supposed to be leaders, history-makers and shapers. We have seen time and time again that whenever women have stepped outside of their proscribed roles, they are targeted for criticism. Men are celebrated as renegades and rebels whereas women are shunned for speaking their minds.

WITW: Walker's journey is extraordinary: born into an impoverished family of sharecroppers in Georgia, she went on to marry a white Jewish man even as she actively took part in the Civil Rights Movement. Later, she joined Ms. Magazine and created the first platform for black American women writers and poets to share their work. In what ways has Walker helped shape the American literary canon and even American history?

PP: Alice Walker has shaped the literary canon in deeply fundamental ways. She has brought the inner lives and emotional and spiritual landscapes of Southern Black women into the predominantly white male literary canon. Lillian Miller, a blues singer from the 1920's sang an ode to African-American women in which one of the recurring lyrics was:

You just can't keep a real good woman down,if you throw me down here Papa, I rise up in some other town

This lyric captures the essence of Alice Walker's dramatic life. Alice is the quintessential 'good woman' who has risen time and time again to change American culture and its perception of African-American women. As a key American artist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, I believe her writings have given visionary leadership to cultural debates on black women's art, politics and sexuality.

WITW: As a filmmaker, you tell stories visually while Walker uses language. Yet your documentary is visually arresting in the way you capture her books' language onto the screen. How difficult was it to transform her language onto the screen?

PP: I was interested in exploring how visual imagery and metaphor could bring alive Alice's language, which in itself has a poetical rhythm and is resonant with so many layers of meanings. Many different things including a passionate engagement with the visual arts influence my filmmaking practice. I'm nourished by paintings -- the way in which perspective develops, for instance, the way Van Gogh painted his self-portrait, which I saw recently at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was utterly vibrant and alive. What makes it so vibrant, what created that constant movement? When your subject's medium is the word, how do you translate that to the screen in a layered, emotional way? From the get go my filmmaking approach has very much been about using image and sound in unpredictable, evocative ways that provoke emotional and visceral responses to the story. So in a way this approach lent itself to giving visual voice to Alice's story as well as her creative output.

WITW: As a filmmaker, you say your passion is to tell stories that are overlooked or rarely told. I'll be honest and say I went to school to be a novelist myself and yet I wasn't taught much about Walker's history. Why are these unheard stories so important for you to tell and for us to know?

PP: There are many reasons why many young people don't know who Alice Walker is. There's a deliberate erasure of women history-makers, particularly woman who have been outspoken, and Alice has always been outspoken on so many different issues. There's also a shocking gender and racial bias in the teaching of history and literature, so that the white male literary canon is always at the top of the reading lists. Unless there are educators who have an awareness and commitment to ensuring that women and especially women of color are represented in their reading lists, the default will always be the white male canon.

To watch the Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth tune in tonight at PBS

Samina Ali is the Curator of Muslima: Muslim Women's Arts and Voices and author of the award-winning novel, Madras on Rainy Days.