Evocative, powerful, and lyrical are the words that suggest themselves after watching Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. This new documentary helmed by Pratibha Parmar offers a sympathetic portrait of the writer, activist, mother, and woman whose literary voice helped shaped a new American future.
As an avid fan of the documentary format as a means to educate, entertain, and provoke, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is one of the best entries in the genre I’ve seen in a long while. On the whole, it offers such an indelible sense of completeness to the life and work of Walker that I have to remind myself Walker is very much alive and well, living and writing in California. A thought that simultaneously energizes and excites.
A figure of tremendous inspiration and provocation, Walker’s work has spanned more than four decades. It has informed and polarized generations. What Parmar’s documentary showcases particularly well is the germination behind some of Walker’s most well known works including “Once”, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland”, “Meridian”, and the controversial “The Color Purple”. Parmar does so by examining the writer’s early life, her influences like Zora Neale Hurston, and those youthful trials that seem to have formed a large part of who Walker was to become – not only as a woman but as a creator.
Blending still photography, intimate interviews, and historical footage, Parmar weaves a film whose resulting poetical flavor is a satisfying reflection of its very subject matter. In this way, the documentary seeks to bring its audience closer to its subject, rather than perpetuate a sense of inaccessibility sometimes associated with literary celebrity. This approach feels so in tune with Walker’s work that the documentary becomes a complementary extension of the author’s own work; a companion piece that seeks to enlighten new and existing fans alike.
After watching the documentary, many will feel inspired to revisit those works of Walker among their favorites. There is a sense that, owing to the film’s generous and graceful framing of Walker as lyrical poet and passionate humanitarian, those unfamiliar with her work beyond the landmark Pulitzer prize winning novel, “The Color Purple”, may now be energized to get to know her – really know her.
What would a documentary about Alice Walker be without a little controversy? It’s true that Parmar doesn’t shy away from discussing facts in Walker’s life that may surprise or even shock you. But, it’s also true that these things are not delved into with any sense of depth; a fact that is as understandable as it is frustrating. When the sensitive subject of Walker’s now estranged daughter, Rebecca, bubbles up, there is a sense of constraint, of glazing over. This is documentary nowheresville; a bleak expanse where neither the filmmakers nor the subject willingly want to tread. The problem is that it hangs there – seeminglynecessary to mention, but uncomfortable and complicated in its one-sidedness. That it’s discussed in a such a fleeting manner raises more questions than it answers.
The downside is that, as a documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth may appear to lack the essential courage of the woman herself who, amidst a backdrop of hate and intolerance, found a place among the literary greats by doing things her way.
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is as much a love story about the American experience as it is about the life and life work of its subject. It paints a vivid and brutally honest picture of the times in which Walker came of age. Utilizing historical footage of the civil unrest in the South, Parmar is easily able to parlay these powerful images into an equally powerful statement about the author’s work and its lasting, significance.
Q&A with Alice Walker:
Official site: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth