Alice Walker is fearless.
The critically acclaimed author has lived a full life on her own terms.
From her choice of sexual partners to daring to write a novel – The Color Purple – which talked about the pain black people inflicted on each other.
Her unconventional journey is testimony to her ability to thrive in spite of it all.
It is this fascinating tale that is beautifully crafted in a compelling documentary telling the story of Walker’s life from a shack in rural Georgia to recognition as a prolific writer.
The penetrating film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, was one of a handful of special pre-festival screenings and talkbacks at this year’s 2013 BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta.
British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar explores Walker’s childhood, evolution as a writer, her artistic legacy, and activism. Walker, now 69, became the first black woman to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her international bestselling novel The Color Purple.
The 84-minute film includes interviews from a cast of well-known public figures that are intimately familiar with Walker’s life and work, including Angela Davis, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, and her ex-husband.
It gives viewers a glimpse of her early childhood in the Deep South at a time when African-Americans were coerced into submission. Walker, the youngest of eight children, lived in abject poverty but was raised by loving parents.
“The love and sacrifice of her life was so apparent,” Walker says in the documentary referring to her beloved mother.
It was her gift to flirt with words that became a passport to forge a better life. “When things were hard or I couldn’t deal with a particular reality, I’d write,” she adds.
A full scholarship to Spelman College followed at the height of the civil rights movement. She later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1965.
During her college years the young and gifted writer was given the intellectual space to flourish, although, her academic studies were eclipsed by an intense period of turbulent social change.
Consequently, Walker became a civil rights activist and later moved to Mississippi with her newly wed Jewish husband, where the young couple campaigned for justice and equality. They were the first legally married inter-racial couple in the state, which unsurprisingly meant the pair was the subject of a prolonged hate campaign.
“We were taken by each other and blocked out the world,” says Walker’s former husband, Melvyn Leventhal.
“We did have a gun and I would have used it,” adds Walker.
The marriage ended in divorce but Walker continued to grow as a writer and in 1982 she publishedThe Color Purple.
Beauty in the Truth effectively conveys that the success of The Color Purple was both a blessing and a curse. The triumph of the novel, as well as the subsequent stage and film version propelled Walker to overnight stardom.
“I read the book three times in one week,” says director Spielberg in an explanation to why he felt compelled to adapt The Color Purple into a blockbuster film in 1985.
Still, after The Color Purple, Walker was on the receiving end of scathing criticism for her portrayal of black family, especially the depiction of African-American males. “It hurt,” says Walker.
What is apparent throughout Beauty in Truth is that Walker is unafraid to candidly talk about her challenges.
She reflects on her grief in the aftermath of an abortion at the age of 19. “As soon as I got stronger I wrote all these poems. The poems healed the agony that healed the abortion.”
During the documentary she also opens up about her fluid sexuality and her romantic relationship with singer Tracy Chapman. “I’m not a lesbian, I’m not bisexual and I’m not heterosexual. I’m just curious,” she says.
Walker also talks about her estranged relationship with her only child, Rebecca, which clearly still causes her deep pain. “I never thought I’d lose my child.”
However, she did not give an adequate explanation of what, if anything, she has done to try to reconcile her troubled relationship with her adult daughter. Walker has never laid eyes on her only grandson.
Beauty in Truth is an extraordinary visual portrait of the life and works of one of the most critically acclaimed writers of the 20th century. It explores Walker’s role as a poet, gifted novelist, human rights activist and self-confessed womanist.
But the absence of her daughter is a painful reminder of relational personal failure.
In the Q&A after the screening with author and journalist, Valarie Boyd, Walker told attendees in the packed auditorium she gave Parmar permission to unravel her complex life because they had previously worked together. She was impressed by the filmmaker’s ability to get things done.
“She is the kind of person who begins and finishes a project,” says Walker.
Tiffany Chapple, a Sparta, Georgia native, who now resides in Atlanta, attended the screening. She told theGrio her grandmother grew up close to where Walker was raised. She says that from stories she’s heard The Color Purple fairly represented life in the Deep South in the 1930s.
“Her candidness is what I love most,” adds Chapple “She’s not about fluff or fillers. That’s what I love about her.”
Molly Malone, who is white, studied The Color Purple during her English degree. “It’s a story of human hood,” she says. “It’s wasn’t only a story about black people. It’s a world novel. It’s depicting humanity. She didn’t stereotype.”