An ode to Alice Walker, a complex, special author weathering all assault

Author Alice Walker in December at the London premiere of "Beauty in Truth," Pratibha Parmar's portrait of the Pulitzer honoree featuring captivating passages of Walker reading from her own works.
Author Alice Walker in December at the London premiere of "Beauty in Truth," Pratibha Parmar's portrait of the Pulitzer honoree featuring captivating passages of Walker reading from her own works. (BRENDA LAWLEY)
Posted: February 07, 2014

PBS's new literary documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on WHYY TV12, opens with a series of nature shots - a serene landscape, water, trees, close-ups of tall, wild grass. It's a cliched bit of hokum, easily dismissible.

Yet it fascinates, arrests, and draws in the viewer with its voice-over. As the first image appears, so rise the unique timbre and rhythms of Walker's voice as she recites a verse.

"I am the woman: Dark, / repaired, healed /Listening to you," the Pulitzer-winning author of The Color Purple reads from her poem "Remember?"

We are treated to a procession of photos of Walker from the 1960s and '70s as she continues, "I would give / to the human race / only hope."

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is worth watching simply for the more than a dozen scenes of Walker reading over the years from her journals, letters, poems, and novels. It's hard not to be bewitched by her voice: confident, but with an underlying touch of fragility.

Director Pratibha Parmar's intimate, 90-minute American Masters portrait of Walker is one of a series of programs this month on PBS commemorating Black History Month.

Parmar previously has collaborated with Walker on a book, Warrior Marks, and its 1993 film adaptation. She doesn't pretend her film is an objective, critical study. Instead, it's a work of adulation designed to enchant us, draw us in, help us fall in love with Walker's world and her work.

It succeeds admirably.

Employing archival footage, interviews with Walker's family and friends, including her college teacher Howard Zinn, her editor at Ms. magazine Gloria Steinem, and fellow authors and scholars such as Sapphire, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Evelyn C. White, Parmar dutifully surveys the major turning points in Walker's life.

Raised under Jim Crow in rural Georgia, Alice Walker was the youngest of eight children born to impoverished sharecropper Willie Lee Walker and his wife, Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant, who helped pay for Alice's school needs by working as a maid. Minnie brought in $17 a week, her now 69-year-old daughter recounts on-camera, yet she supplied Alice with a typewriter and a briefcase and kept her in notebooks and ink throughout her teens.

We follow the 17-year-old Walker as she matriculates at Spelman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship, then transfers to Sarah Lawrence College in New York state. Throughout her college years, Walker dreaded the prospect of failure: She was afraid Spelman might throw her out because of her active role in the civil rights movement. When she becomes pregnant, she considers suicide.

"I had nowhere to go back to," says Walker, who explains the few options she'd have as a single black mother in Georgia. "So it was abortion or suicide."

Walker has the abortion, but the trauma has a profound effect. Poems rush in faster than she can write them down. "It's like all the debris of the situation becomes a fuel for the emergence of a new consciousness," Walker says of the flood of inspiration. She collected the poems in her first book, Once, published when she was 24.

Within a decade, she published two major novels. The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) explored the effects of racism on black families. It explored how black men sometimes transferred the oppression they felt from white society into violent rage against their own wives and children. Meridian (1976), a nuanced account of the civil rights movement from the point of view of young activists, is still considered one of the best chronicles of that era.

And in 1983, Walker became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for The Color Purple.

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth presents Walker as a single-minded artist who refuses to be bound by expectations, including those of her own community.

We are taken back to 1985 when Stephen Spielberg's film adaptation of The Color Purple was picketed by black church leaders and men's groups who complained that the story demonized the African American male and promoted lesbianism.

Walker's 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, inspired similar attacks. Refusing to sentimentalize or romanticize Africa, the novel mounts a powerful critique of cultural misogyny as it rears its head through the practice of female genital mutilation.

Walker's own life seems a tribute to individual choice: She was attacked by comrades in the civil rights movement in 1967 when she married a white man, Jewish lawyer and activist Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, with whom she has a daughter, Rebecca.

Divorced in 1976, Walker had a number of male partners before she raised the ire of critics yet again when she began dating a series of white and black women, including singer Tracy Chapman.

Other controversies include Walker's very public falling-out with Rebecca, who in 2008 accused Walker of being a terrible mother and role model. She described her mother as a militant feminist who thought of motherhood as a form of enslavement.

Walker speaks of the attack with restraint, though it's clear that she is greatly hurt.

For the most part, Walker seems sanguine about the controversies that have surrounded her career.

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth presents Walker as a complex, brilliant artist who passionately upholds the interests of her community but whose work transcends parochialism. Like all great literature, Walker's novels marry the individual, the idiosyncratic, the particular, and the local with the universal.

As Steinem puts it in the film, "I hope and I believe that people's love for her as an author has put an end to the idea that somehow Tolstoy is universal and African American authors are special and won't be appreciated by a larger audience."


Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth

9 p.m. Friday on WHYY TV12.


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