Pratibha Parmar talks Alice Walker and “Beauty in Truth”

The Color Purple, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about black communities and interpersonal relations between men and women of color in the South, catapulted Alice Walker to fame as a writer. But beyond this work (actually her tenth novel) many of us do not know the complexity and richness of her life, not only as a writer but as a global activist.

True to her artistic career, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar is continuing her efforts to make history through her latest film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 31. In this inspiring and informative documentary, Parmar tells the story of Alice Walker, from poverty-stricken child of the unbearably racist South to acclaimed writer and activist. Through a blend of archival footage that recreates the political and social contexts of Walker’s life from the mid 1940s onward with interviews from a range of Walker’s friends—including Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg—Parmar presents audiences with a detailed landscape of the “beauty” and “truth” of Walker’s life.

 

Like Shola Lynch’s Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, Parmar’s Beauty in Truth is a much needed contribution to the slow but ever growing archive of African-American women who have indelibly shaped our discourses of race, gender, sexuality, class, and oppressive regimes of power.

In the below interview Parmar discusses her latest documentary, her personal interactions with Walker, in addition to offering her own interpretation on pivotal and complex issues broached by her documentary.

AfterEllen.com: When did you first encounter Alice Walker, in her writing or in person? How soon after this first encounter did you know you wanted to tell the story of her life?
Pratibha Pamar:
I first encountered Alice through her books. From the get go her words and stories inspired me like it did so many others. Her insights into the lives of women who lived and loved on the margins of cultures especially resonated with me.

One of the first books I read was In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, where she had written a revelatory definition of “womanism,” which empowered me literally to continue being “willful, womanish and question everything,” It gave me permission to be the feisty feminist I was becoming at the time.

Exactly 20 years after meeting Alice and us becoming friends, it struck me that her story needed to be told. As activists we need to grab every opportunity to reclaim feminist histories for ourselves. Given the dearth of stories about women on various media platforms, I wanted to make sure that our feminist foremothers’ are brought center stage where they belong.

AE: As everything in one’s life is connected, do you feel there is a kernel or origin of Beauty in Truth in your earlier documentary on Angela Davis and June Jordan, A Place of Rage? How would you connect these two documentaries, both in terms of your own career and in terms of subject matter or theme?
PP:
It was through meeting June Jordan when I interviewed her for a feminist magazine in London that I met Angela Davis and Alice Walker and made A Place of Rage so June Jordan was really THE catalyst.

I often get asked how come an Indian woman from the UK is making a film about African American women icons. I don’t think many North Americans realize the incredible ripple effect the civil rights and black power movements had on the rest of the world. As a 14-year-old immigrant girl trying to make sense of racism in the United Kingdom, it was Angela Davis’s autobiography that helped me to find a language and a way to understand what was happening to my family and other exploited immigrants. Whenever people are engaged in struggles for their rights, someone else in another part of the world can see how that might be possible for them too.

In the winter of 2008, I came across a bunch of DVDs on American icons who were deemed to have shaped American culture, not one in that bunch of DVDs was a woman, let alone a woman of color. It was a no brainer for me as a filmmaker to quickly see how Alice’s story would make for a fascinating film. Her journey begins from her birth on a plantation in Georgia to a sharecropper family, and moves to her historic win of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple.

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