When I think of American feminist writers, I often think, first, of literary giant Alice Walker. And based on last week’s PBS airing of the documentary, “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” apparently, so do many others. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar set out to write the story years ago after realizing that the “American Masters” series on PBS that celebrates icons of American pop culture featured few or no women.
Ms. Walker, once an editor at Ms. magazine, has garnered a reputation for telling the truth about racism and sexism through her many novels, poems and short stories, even when it causes an uproar.
In the New York Times bestseller, “Possessing the Secret Joy,” she makes a statement against the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. Written in 1992, the book was met with criticism and denial by several African leaders.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Color Purple”, she writes about the dysfunction, violence, sisterhood and lesbian love in one African American family in Georgia. When the film adaptation (directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Quincy Jones) was released, Walker endured seemingly endless backlash from the Black community with particular charges that the story exposed untrue and harsh portrayals of Black men.
Of the Color Purple fallout, one interviewee in the film remarked, “I don’t know of any other Black writer who experienced as much venom as she experienced from her own community – the community she cares most about.” Another person interviewed said, “The writing came from her life’s experiences. She couldn’t control it. She described The Color Purple as something that came from the gods.”
Described as “a writer who puts herself on the firing line,” Walker, of course, defends all of her work. “I would give to the human race only hope,” she says in the opening montage in the film. In another scene, she says, “People really had a problem with my disinterest in submission; they had a problem with my intellect, my choice of lovers, my choice of everything. Choose one. Choose all. They just had a problem.”
With in-depth interviews from Quincy Jones, Danny Glover, Gloria Steinem and several others, the film touches on Walker’s upbringing in Georgia under Jim Crow laws; why she became a writer; her writing process and the sacrifices she’s made for its growth; her estranged relationship with her daughter Rebecca; and her divorce from her husband Mel Leventhal (in part, due to race relations and her activism during the Civil Rights movement).
Now 70, Walker has traveled around the world including to Cuba and Africa, fighting for human rights. The first African American woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize and one of the most important writers of our time, she continues to write. In 2008, her open letter to Barack Obama, where she wrote, “Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina, and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about,” was published in The Root.