“From a sharecropper’s daughter to a superstar”, is the line used to describe southern Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker after the phenomenal success of her novel The Color Purple.
Walker found her voice early, and went on to publish 34 poetry and short story collections, novels, essays and non-fiction books covering topics as diverse as Apartheid, Israel, politics, feminism, black culture, sex and nature. Walker won some of the world’s most prestigious cultural awards and continues to create provocative work. Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a glowing documentary that paints her as something of a saint, but it is interesting.
The Color Purple was her entrée into the mainstream, an international sensation, on which Steven Spielberg based the hit film. Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg helped her become an international household name. But she was a respected feminist writer long before that.
The Color Purple was Walker’s tenth and most accessible, populist book, according to friend Gloria Steinem. Indeed, she did grow up poor, and witnessed regular violent abuses against the women in her family by the men, material she later used in The Color Purple.
Previously, Walker published poetry and reflections on her political activism, “womanism” and her rich early years in Eatonton, Georgia. As a child she lived in an atmosphere of fear in her own violent home and in the rampant, embedded and overt racism that existed throughout the south. Her solace was the written word. She became a brilliant A student and was class Queen and valedictorian. Behind closed doors, she filled notebooks with poetry and questions.
As Walker grew older, the lynching, bullying and violent threats against blacks stopped scaring her, instead galvanising her efforts to fight it. She joined the civil rights movement, and became a leading and outspoken activist in national alliances.
A white professor encouraged her to join the movement, which eventually radicalized and tossed out white members. Walker married a white Jewish lawyer who represented the movement and relocated to a more tolerant New York where they raised their daughter. After their divorce 9 years later, she partnered with a black writer and moved back to the south.
Steinem, Spielberg, Goldberg, Yoko Ono, producer Peter Gruber, Quincy Jones, and her former partners appear in the film, as well as her forebears in archival footage and news footage of the south of the 40’s through the 60s. Walker has led a fascinating and productive life and talks about it eloquently just the way you’d expect of a storyteller.
As accomplished as Walker is, the doc tends to feel like a hagiography. Portions of Walker’s experiences are missing and there is a sense that the filmmakers skipped a lot that might have been unflattering. The film is pleasant enough and artistically interesting with graphics highlighting Walker’s readings and old photos. Still, you have to wonder what less-than-glowing experiences might have added to the richness and authenticity of the film.
Directed by: Pratibha Parmar