Alice Walker Documentary “Beauty in Truth”

Editor’s Note: This article is a shortened and reworked version of the feature “Living History” in the Summer 2013 print issue of Ms. magazine.

Sometimes you have to write the stories you want to read—or, in this case, see.

A few years ago, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar was staying with friends and happened across PBS’ American Masters series on DVD.  She couldn’t help but notice something was missing:

“They were all about American men who are icons, or who have been icons, who’ve shaped or impacted American culture. They were all men, and, to me, it just seemed like a huge, glaring absence that there were no women.”

In particular, where was Alice Walker? Surely, Parmar thought, she’s worthy of the series. The filmmaker, who had previously collaborated with author/poet Walker on Warrior Marks, the 1993 documentary about female genital cutting, never intended to make a documentary about a woman whom she considers a friend. Until she had a chance to think it over. “Actually, this is crazy,” she thought. “Why not me?”

In 2013, Parmar completed Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth and now, in an act of seemingly karmic inevitability, the film will air on PBS as part of American Masters at 9 p.m. this Friday.

For Parmar, the transition from her previous work, which included the 2006 fictional film Nina’s Heavenly Delights (a lesbian romantic comedy about a woman returning to Glasgow to run her family’s Indian restaurant), seemed natural:

“It’s all part of the same trajectory, stories which explore questions of agency, self-determination and empowerment. I came to filmmaking from an activist and academic background, so inevitably my work is informed by my concerns about the lack of authentic and nuanced visibility of women of color, as well as queer and feminist representations.”

Parmar struggled to procure funding for the film.  “Seven percent of all directors are women; that in itself tells you how difficult it is for women filmmakers to get funding,” she explains. “Part of it is that people that make decisions about women are people who don’t necessarily seem to trust women’s visions and are much happier to give money to men.” 

In the end, a group of individual women philanthropists supported the final edits, bringing Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth to the rest of us. As someone privileged to have seen the film this past summer, I can attest that we should all be grateful for Parmar’s persistence.

Her portrait of Walker is lyrical, haunting and intimate—the latter attributable to the two women’s long friendship and mutual trust. Her goal was to “let Alice take us on that journey through her life, and we travel that journey with her rather than stepping back and looking at it as an observer.” Drawing heavily from archival material, Parmar’s film makes use of Walker’s earliest drafts, notes, poems and chapters written longhand in spiral-bound notebooks.

While the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects—Walker’s divorce; the vicious critiques she faced when The Color Purple was made into a film; her estrangement from her daughter, Rebecca—Parmar isn’t a sensationalist. Her portrayal is expressive without being sentimental, revealing Walker as not only a brilliant writer and intellectual, but also a deeply soulful woman who stands behind the power of her convictions.

It’s a beautiful film: a testament to the power of narrative, textual and visual, and to finding your way when the path isn’t always clear.

Both Walker’s life and Parmar’s drive to have her story told, should remind us that sitting idly by hoping others will solve our problems isn’t an option; it’s precisely at those moments when we’re told “no” that we have to push back and stand for what we believe in.

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth airs Friday, February 7, 2014 at 9pm ET on PBS. Watch the film’s trailer here.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.