Pratibha Parmar talks Alice Walker and “Beauty in Truth”


AE: Was it difficult to make a documentary about a living subject?
Not at all. In 2014, Alice will be 70, a perfect time to catch her reflecting on her life and engaging her in conversations about life changing facts and events. I particularly loved editing the section in the film where Alice talks about falling in love with Mel Leventhal, a white Jewish civil rights attorney. It’s also the first time Mel speaks publicly about their “taboo breaking illegal, interracial marriage” and subsequent experience of intense racism when they lived in Mississippi. It was very moving to have the two of them revisit this historic time in U.S. history. As civil rights activists challenging segregation in the South they talk about how they navigated their love for each other amidst the fire bombings and the racist killings. That’s what I love about documentaries, that you can capture living testimonies, which become precious documents of both a personal and political history.

AE: “Justice and hope. Hope and justice. Let us begin”—these are the words spoken at the beginning of the documentary. What kind of framework does justice and hope lend the film?
At the heart of Alice’s work and life is her commitment to justice and her hope that change is possible. In a way it’s beyond a commitment and as our film shows, it is in her DNA to speak out on behalf of all those who can’t. To make the film without including Alice’s activism would have been impossible. Through the film I show how her activism and her writing are intrinsically connected. As a filmmaker I am invested in exploring how we as artists can create work that might help to change the world, however small that change maybe. With Beauty in Truth I wanted to make a film that would give hope to future generations by witnessing the life of someone who has thrived despite the odds. To see unfold on screen what it takes to forge a powerful, authentic and compassionate self in the crucible of poverty, hypocrisy and cruelty.

Howard Zinn, who passed away a few months after I interviewed him, has said “that if you see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at the least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

AE: Walker speaks of her mother as strong, resilient, and loving, even though she “never said ‘I love you.’” Do you think these characteristics are evident in Alice Walker as a mother? I ask because her relationship with her daughter, writer Rebecca Walker, is strained; they are not on speaking terms. Gloria Steinem said Rebecca was “finding her identity by carving it out of Alice.” This, I feel, is shockingly insightful—how do you see the dynamic between Alice and Rebecca?
This was a very difficult sequence in the film. Mainly because I have witnessed first hand the rawness of Alice’s pain around the estrangement from Rebecca. I was committed to exploring this estrangement in an honest and real way, in a way that gave a sense of why it happened. Rebecca’s memoir, Black White and Jewish, gives some indication of her feeling of abandonment and as Evelyn White says in the film, “Rebecca was a civil rights baby and so when her parents split up she felt abandoned on some level.” Additionally, there is so little mention anywhere of how women of Alice’s generation have had to struggle as single parents as well as struggling to honor their creative muse and be activists at the same time. Trying to change the world so women can have rights and be free does come has had to come with painful sacrifices at times for many women artists and writers.

Earlier this year we had our world premier in London during International Women’s Week and during the post screening Q&A, Alice made an interesting comment: “I have a certain spirit and I didn’t suppress it. I have tried hard to honor it . . . It was the spirit of creativity—standing with people who are in danger, the commitment to the people I love, including my daughter . . . I was brought up in a culture where to be a mother . . . was to be the mother in the old, old, old sense, where you were the mother to children everywhere.”

Over the years, I have spent time with both Rebecca and Alice and for the longest time they were the best of friends and so it’s quite sad to have been witness to a public display of Rebecca’s hurt and anger towards her mother. But I remain optimistic that one day there will be a reconciliation, if that is what they both want.

AE: Towards the close of the film Walker speaks the words “We are expressions of humanity,” which I found nicely encapsulate what it means to be both an artist and an activist. Do you feel these words to represent your own life, as both an artist and activist, and as an activist through your art?
Yes, very much so. I came to art through my activism. My first film was a ten minute video poem called Sari Red, a memorial to a young Indian woman who was killed by a group of white racist thugs on the streets of London. They ran her over with their van because she shouted back when they screamed racist abuse at her. When I showed that video for the first time to about 200 people at a little underground film festival in Brighton, I was blown away by the response. At that moment I saw the power of the moving image and sound to create visceral responses in audiences by bringing them into the world of that young woman. She was no longer a statistic; she became a real person to them. That was a turning point. I wanted to continue to tell stories of people on the margins, outsiders and outlaws.

Producer Shaheen Haq, writer Alice Walker and director Pratibha Parmar

AE: Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983 with The Color Purple; both the book and the cinematic adaptation garnered heavy criticism from African-American men, as you highlight in your documentary. “The pain black people exact upon each other,” a theme of the book, is an pernicious effect of racism. Thirty years later, how do you think this “pain” is exacted or manifests today?
Many people who have seen Beauty In Truth comment that they had no idea of the level of hatred and vilification Alice Walker experienced as a result of both the book but especially Spielberg’s movie of The Color Purple. I made a concerted effort to include archive footage of the protests against the film premier in Los Angeles, as well as talk shows where audience members, mainly men would lay into Alice. No doubt, thirty years on although the dynamics still remain fraught around these complex questions, we have also seen change. Sapphire’s book, Push treads similar territory and was also made into a powerful movie, Precious by Lee Daniels. There were a few voices of aggressive attacks in fact, some by one or two of the same individuals who attacked Alice Walker, but on the whole Precious sparked debate in constructive ways. That’s movement forward.

AE: You include a lot of footage—stills and video—of police brutality of black people in the United States from the 1940s-1960s, which offers political and social contexts to Alice’s life. She describes this racism and state supported and induced racism as “terrorism,” and I literally raised my fist in the air when she said this word, because it’s so spot on, especially given the current climate of terrorism stateside. Do you think reframing racism in terms of terrorism could be productive? It seems like this reframing is one way to push for a discussion of race in our seemingly “post-racial” America.
On the basis that the definition of terrorism is “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims,” it’s absurd to talk about “post-racial” anything when you think about the disproportionate numbers of black men and black women incarcerated in prisons across the U.S. and the daily level of police violence and brutality towards black people and people of color. This looks very much like unmitigated state sanctioned violence.

AE: I loved Walker saying she wasn’t lesbian or bi or straight; instead, she is “curious.” To me, it illustrates the profound difference between race and sexuality, and between the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century and the Gay Rights Movement of today. What do you make of this (sexual) declaration?
I think this declaration is profoundly and quintessentially Alice! I like what Jewelle Gomez has to say in the film, that because our queer communities are under siege so much of the time, we thirst for, if not demand, visible support from high profile “celebrities” but you know they have to live their own truths. And that’s one thing Alice is exemplary at, living her own truth.

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