New Alice Walker Doc Delivers Good Medicine

A new PBS documentary about writer Alice Walker finally tells her powerful story and has already moved audiences with its message writes Agunda Okeyo.

Anthony Barboza

The documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a cascade of impressive words and images revealing the life’s journey of a renowned author and activist. Although, British filmmaker and activist Pratibha Parmar has been a friend of Alice Walker’s for twenty years, she only decided to do this documentary when she realized that American Masters, perhaps the most prestigious televised U.S. documentary series, launched in 1986 by Susan Lacy, mostly featured men and often white men at that. After six years of filming and raising capital to complete a feature-length documentary, Parmar and producer Shaheen Haq, achieved their goal. Beauty will premiere on PBS on February 7, 2014 as part of American Masters; in honor of Walker’s 70th birthday and Black History Month.

This unprecedented documentary provides the viewer with a unique opportunity to hear Walker speak about her own life’s journey. The film also includes archival materials from her ancestry, childhood, and key influences, as well as, interviews from her colleagues and friends.

In the opening moments of the film, Parmar introduces the audience to Walker who reads her own poem “Remember?” while the camera travels through lyrical scenes of breathtaking landscapes. Rustic scenery appears throughout the feature reflecting Walker’s enduring love of nature and forming moments of visual poetry. The film is further enriched by footage from the Jim Crow south when the author grew up as the youngest child in a sharecropping family. Parmar creates a filmic scrapbook layered with transparent scrawling of Walker’s own handwritten drafts of her writing. It is this depth of engagement with Walker’s life and work that Parmar brings to the screen. It also helps to contextualize the painful criticisms Walker experienced throughout her life as a truth-teller. As Walker says, “People really had a problem with my disinterest in submission. They had a problem with my intellect, and they had a problem with my choice of lovers. They had a problem with my choice of everything.”

The documentary begins at Walker’s birth as the eighth child of a poor, rural family in Eatonton, Georgia. Unlike many black families there, Walker’s mother defied the landowner to keep her children in school and away from work in the fields. Her mother, Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant Walker worked as a maid to supplement her husband’s income as a sharecropper. Grant Walker also did her best to beautify their shack for her children with decorative wallpaper and a garden bursting with flowers. Walker interpreted her mother’s daily toil and innovative spirit as a call to use her own gifts as best she could. She was able to get a scholarship to Spelman College, and later to Sarah Lawrence. As she left Eatonton Walker took with her the courage and life stories of the women in her family.

As attested by a high school boyfriend, Walker, like her mother, defied the mores of southern life through opposition to racial injustice like sitting in the back of the bus or being forced to use a rear entrance. He confesses that Walker’s defiance incited fear in him, as a young man raised under similar conditions. Therefore, from the moment Walker attended Spelman, she joined other students as non-violent resistors to segregation; mentored at by former professor Howard Zinn. It is typical of Walker’s bravery that she left Spelman after Zinn was fired for his advocacy work.

The documentary features footage of Zinn, in the last years of his life, recalling his first impressions of a young Walker. It is hard to ignore the providence that the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for Fiction would cross paths with one of America’s greatest historians, humanists, and practitioners of civil disobedience. However, Zinn is one of a number of equally renowned women and men that speak of crossed paths, first impressions, and friendship with Walker. A remarkable list of contributors includes Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Steinem, Danny Glover, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Angela Davis, Stephen Spielberg, and Yoko Ono. The documentary also features a candid interview with Walker’s former husband, a Jewish civil rights lawyer, as well as, discussion of her painful, public falling out with her only daughter.

In speaking with Parmar about the six-year process of making the film, she said, “It was challenging to get the film financed. It was astonishing to us that even some of the women centered funds whose remit was to fund stories about women by women didn’t consider the project. Stories about women of color told by women of color are sidelined and neglected in favor of our stories being told by white women and men.” When asked what Parmar understood as the role of a woman artist she echoed something similar to Walker’s inspiration to write The Color Purple. Parmar has been a filmmaker for over 25 years and still finds circumstances where culturally diverse women’s experiences are not told; therefore as an artist she is compelled to intervene.

Following a December gala screening at the 2013 African Diaspora International Film Festival an audience comprised almost entirely of women reacted to the film (where it won the Public Award for Best Film Directed by a Woman of Color). During a question and answer portion with Parmar, a number of women offered testimony rather than ask questions. Later, Parmer revealed, “many people including Alice have said that the film is ‘good medicine’ especially for women. Every screening I have gone to, many African-American women have told me how they feel empowered after watching the film and how much they appreciate the beauty and the love with which they are represented.” Each viewer will take something different from the documentary, but it stands to reason that much like Walker’s many literary works and activism, Beauty in Truth will provide ‘good medicine’ too.