Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth: Film Review

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth - P 2013
Seattle International Film Festival
Doc will please the author/activist's fans but won't win over new ones

The "Color Purple" author is celebrated by friends and admirers including Angela Davis and "Push" author Sapphire.

SEATTLE — A worshipful biography of a writer whose prolific output is matched by a tireless engagement with social-justice activism, Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth follows the story of a sharecropper's daughter who rose to fame and enough fortune to carve out her own garden-paradise corner of the world. The attractively made doc will delight those who are passionate about Walker and connect some dots for those who know her mostly for The Color Purple but is short on critical voices and fails to present her writing in a way likely to generate much interest in those who haven't read it.

Beginning in Georgia, where Walker was born, the film describes both her family's poverty and her mother's determination that her daughter would have the kind of education rarely afforded to laborers' children. Alice was an obsessive writer from the start and, upon entering college, became active enough in the civil rights movement that it jeopardized her scholarship. The late historian Howard Zinn admiringly recalls her tenure at Spelman, a college both would leave in favor of more lefty-friendly campuses.

In a youth dominated by "the Movement," Walker turned heads by marrying Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish activist, having a daughter with him and moving from New York to Mississippi, where the family drew the expected attention from racists. The couple divorced amicably about a decade later, as the interracial pairing became too big a liability for Walker within black political circles as well.

The film reveals little of how Walker wound up getting her early work published, instead focusing on how that work came to be -- springing from a need for self-expression so single-minded that (as we see when the camera glides past early manuscripts) Walker dedicated her first homemade book of poetry to herself. Viewers inclined to judge her self-absorbed will find evidence -- in her easy-come, easy-go attitude toward love, her estrangement from her daughter -- but Parmar clearly doesn't see things this way, and any critics referred to here are simply people who don't understand Alice Walker.

That attitude is most easily justified in the section of the doc describing controversies over The Color Purple, the target of various unfair assaults, many coming from the very community one might've expected to revere it. Other chapters in her literary history -- her work with Gloria Steinem on Ms. magazine, her championing of then-obscure pioneer Zora Neale Hurston -- are recounted here with more uniform praise, with interviewees from Angela Davis to Push author Sapphire dropping in to describe her as a hero, particularly for black women.

Production Company: Kali Films
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Pratibha Parmar
Executive producers: Susan Lacy, Sally Jo Fifer, Babeth M. VanLoo, Eve Ensler, Regina Kulik Scully, Deborah Santana
Director of photography: Simon Dennis
Music: Tena R. Clark, Tim Heintz
Editors: Pratibha Parmar, Paul Monaghan, Linda Peckham
No rating, 83 minutes