Pratibha Parmar’s powerful new film, Beauty in Truth, recounts the historically rich story of the first African American woman writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Walker has published over thirty books of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and memoir, including the bestselling The Color Purple. She has been instrumental in creating a literary space for women writers of color worldwide, and she recuperated the lost and important work of Zora Neale Hurston.
Beauty in Truth contains a series of interviews with Walker and her colleagues, siblings, fellow writers, friends and scholars, including Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Sonia Sanchez, and Jack Kornfield, among others. Throughout the early sections of the film, Parmar weaves in civil-rights era footage of violence against African Americans, including lynchings, beatings, and hostile white responses to the civil disobedience of African Americans. The work shows vast cultural change during Walker’s life, and examines how she was, and remains, deeply influenced by the tenets of Martin Luther King.
Parmar’s film recounts Walker’s early life as the eighth child of sharecropper parents in Georgia, including her brother’s shooting and blinding of her eye with a BB gun, her complex experiences in college during the civil rights era, unwanted pregnancy, near suicide, and abortion, (illegal) interracial marriage to a Jewish civil-rights lawyer, challenges with divorce and single motherhood, and attacks she endured after the film Color Purple regarding the portrayal of African American men. Parmar also traces Walker’s political activism—how she repeatedly challenged and challenges the status quo and fights for racial, women’s, children’s, animal, and earth-based rights—and the rights of the Palestinian people.
Parmar and Walker are well acquainted as an artistic team. The two made the seminal film on female genital mutilation, Warrior Marks, in 1993, raising public awareness about this violent and dangerous practice.
When asked why she wanted to make a biographical film about Walker, Parmar said, “There are such enormous gaps in public knowledge about important women, and especially about women of color in western culture. I feel it is my calling as a filmmaker to make sure that women’s inspirational stories are heard and seen.”
Being at the forefront of change, for Walker, has come with some conflict. She’s been verbally attacked for her politics. Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, does not speak to her mother and has publicly critiqued her for not being an attentive parent—blaming feminism for their rift.
In a recent post-show interview concerning Beauty in Truth, Walker states, “I have a certain spirit and I didn’t suppress it. I have tried hard to honor it . . . It was the spirit of creativity—standing with people who are in danger, the commitment to the people I love, including my daughter . . . I was brought up in a culture where to be a mother . . . was to be the mother in the old, old, old sense, where you were the mother to children everywhere.”
When asked how she finds the courage to deal with the problems of this world and continue writing, Walker says that this particular planet Earth was meant for joy, and if we connect with that, we “will be forever fed by it.”
A creative, intellectual, and activist force, Walker will continue to inspire generations of people to come. Her story reminds women of all colors and backgrounds that they must not be limited to the roles assigned to them. Walker’s personal journey show us that we must look out for our oppressed sisters around the world, care for our planet and all living creatures, seek an end to war, and be mothers to all children. We must, in the end, find joy here on earth and nourish our creative spirits.
Parmar's film blends historical and original footage from the Jim Crow, civil rights, and 1970s feminist eras through the present, and in this way masterfully presents Alice Walker's revolutionary story as integral to American history.
Heidi Hutner is Interim Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University. She’s currently working on an environmental memoir, Polluting Mama, due out in 2014. Follow her at twitter: @HeidiHutner or at her blog, Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations.