Photo by Donald Maclellan
Pratibha Parmar discusses making the recent documentary about an iconic American writer, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which can be seen on the American Masters’ website. [27:59]
<Excerpt from Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth: I am the woman dark, repaired, healed, listening to you. I would give to the human race only hope. I am the woman offering two flowers, those roots a twin, justice and hope. Hope and justice. Let us begin.>
Jo Reed: That's writer Alice Walker in an excerpt from the film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which was written and directed by Pratihba Parmar and recently seen on PBS's American Masters. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Alice Walker is a poet, novelist, essayist, and activist. She's probably best known for her novel, The Color Purple which details the lives of African-American women in 1930s' rural Georgia. In 1983, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer-Prize for fiction and the National Book Award. It also generated tremendous controversy among some African-Americans and has been censored from many schools throughout the country. But Alice Walker has never shied away from controversy: from her activism in the Civil Rights movement, to her interracial marriage in a segregated Mississippi, from her outspokenness against female genital mutilation to her current pro-Palestinian activities. And through it all, she's remained an author of uncommon power and lyricism.
Walker found a worthy biographer in Pratihba Parmar. Pratibha is internationally known as documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on women in the global community. In fact in 1993, she collaborated with Alice Walker to make an award-winning documentary about female genital mutilation called Warrior Marks. Pratihba's films often recounts the every-day lives of women in poverty--their oppression but their resistance too. And this, along with her political complexity matched by a visual richness, makes her singularly able to tell Alice Walker's story-- from her upbringing as the eighth child of sharecroppers to her being the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
I spoke with Pratibha Parmar recently and asked how she first became acquainted with Alice Walker.
Pratibha Parmar: The first time I met Alice Walker was like many other people; it was through her books. The first book that I ever read of Alice Walker’s was "In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens," and it had a huge impact on me and I really resonated with many of the things that she was writing about particularly as a child of immigrant parents living in England. I really understood and found a language through her writing to be able to speak about my own experiences as an immigrant woman, as a woman of color. So that’s how I met Alice Walker was through her words and through her poetry, and it was many, many, many years later that I actually met her in person and I had never imagined that when I first read her books that I would ever be blessed or honored enough to actually meet her in life.
Jo Reed: Well, how did you meet her?
Pratibha Parmar: I met her through a mutual friend, the wonderful and incredible poet, writer June Jordan who is no longer with us. I knew June because I had been teaching with her books in the U.K. in a women’s studies class, and then June had come to London to do a poetry tour and I was asked to interview her for a feminist magazine and I went to interview her. We got on very well. Her books were not available in the U.K. at the time so I instigated and coordinated the publication of three or four of her books and collections of poetry in the U.K., and as a result we got to know each other very well. And through her I met Alice Walker when I was making a film about African American women and the civil rights movement. At that time I was focusing on Angela Davis and June Jordan but I also did an interview with Alice.
Jo Reed: And that was your film "A Place of Rage."
Pratibha Parmar: That’s right, yes.
Jo Reed: How do you decide on a subject for a film?
Pratibha Parmar: Well, it comes from many, many instincts for me as a filmmaker. I’m influenced by so many things, by things I read but also my own life experiences, and say for instance "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth." You know, I have been friends with Alice Walker now for a few decades but I actually never really thought oh, her life and her writings it would make an incredibly interesting film because I was her friend; I wasn’t actually thinking about it as a filmmaker. But one Christmas I was watching a whole bunch of DVDs which were all about stories of Americans who have made a big impact on American culture, shaped American culture, architects, writers, musicians. And most of these documentaries were for a series called "American Masters" and most of the ones that I saw were stories of white men albeit very interesting, amazing people but for me the question was "Where are the women history makers, where are the women public intellectuals, and then where is a story on Alice Walker?" She is very much part of the American literary canon. She has a huge body of work. She’s written over 30 plus books, poetry, essays, novels, and not only has she written a significant body of work but she has also with her work actually brought us into the intimate landscapes, the spiritual, emotional, physical landscapes of southern black women in a way that no other writer had done before, and a lot of that came from her own experience of growing up in a sharecropper family, being born on a paper-thin shack in Eatonton, Georgia. So all of this has fed her writings and her writing is very rich and full of this detail and full of this particular subject position which we have very rarely had insights into. So I really thought actually I want to make this film about Alice Walker, about her life, because I think that it’s a very important story that we have both as a documentation but also for our times now for students in schools, colleges, universities to actually see what it takes to make the kind of history someone like Alice Walker has done.
Jo Reed: Well in your film we certainly see Alice Walker as someone of the South, and we also see her as someone of the civil rights movement.
Pratibha Parmar: Well, you know it seemed such a organic way of telling her story by connecting it to what was happening within the U.S. politically and culturally at that time that she was growing up and that her formative years were happening so that when she talks about first hearing and meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and what an incredible impact that had on her and that moment of realization that she too would not stand for the kind of segregated violence that she and her family had experienced and she witnessed. So I think that Alice’s story-- personal story is very much intertwined with the story of African American struggle for justice and for liberation and for self-determination within the U.S. And I think that those two things are so intrinsically connected that it would have been impossible to tell her story without referencing and locating it within that story of struggle for social justice and for equality and against racist segregation, violence in the South.
Jo Reed: I was moved at a moment-- well, in many moments in your film but at one when she’s talking about being at Spelman College and taking a political stand, and Spelman is a historically black college but also quite conservative and she was there on a scholarship and realizing that she was risking her scholarship. And you can see how she was really standing on the head of a pin because given where she came from this was the way she could really become who she was and yet to become who she was would mean not being silent at that moment.
Pratibha Parmar: Absolutely, and I think that that sort of just about sums up who Alice is as a person, as a humanitarian, as someone who is driven by an instinct to see justice and to be on the side of justice no matter what the personal cost to her own being and to her own ambitions or to her own dreams. So that here she was on a scholarship to Spelman and knew that by speaking out in the way she did in defense of her professor, Howard Zinn, that she was in danger of both losing her scholarship but also not being able to pursue her dreams of having an education, of escaping the poverty that she grew up in and to actually become the writer that she knew she wanted to be from a very young age. But I think that that’s a spine as it were within Alice Walker’s personal trajectory is that she has always spoken out and been on the side of justice and spoken out against oppression wherever she sees it. And she’s doing it to this day and time and time again she’s been vilified, time and time again she’s been criticized and isolated, yet you know, what I have learned from knowing Alice and being involved with her in her life in terms of making this film is that if Alice does not say what she thinks. And if she does not speak out in the ways that she feels is the right thing to do for herself then she would be deeply unhappy and that that’s where she finds her joy is in being true to who she is, and I think that it’s an incredible thing to behold.
Jo Reed: She is also as you point out very responsible for bringing Zora Neale Hurston out of obscurity and she really does claim Zora Neale Hurston as her own literary mother.
Pratibha Parmar: Yeah. I mean I think that she says that it was so crucial to her when looking for a model for how to be a black woman writer in this world that there was very little that she could look at or find until she found Zora Neale Hurston and her work and that for her it was really important to have a literary ancestor, a mother like Zora Neale Hurston, who showed her that it was possible to write from your own authentic subjective experiences and in your own voice no matter what and how Alice talks about what she got from Zora was the way in which Zora’s work and her writing showed her love for black people, showed them in their fullness, showed them in their nuance. And I think that that’s what Alice has always used as a model for her own writing and you can see that say for instance in "The Third Life of Grange Copeland," her first novel, as well as in her novel that people know-- mostly know her for is "The Color Purple."
Jo Reed: Yes. You can see them in both. You can see it in "Meridian" too, but in "The Color Purple" I think probably very explicitly the focus on rural southerners speaking in their own language and it’s in a world framed by a larger white society but also largely removed from it; you really see a black culture not under the gaze of white people.
Pratibha Parmar: Yes, and I think that was very much Alice’s experience as she was growing up because she says that the shack that they lived on the plantation--you know sometimes they would not see another human being for days and days and that trees were much more familiar to her than other human beings. And I think that that’s such a kind of a beautiful but telling statement. And she also talks about the ways in which her mother created this immense beauty out of a ramshackle shack, out of the poverty that was around them. And you know, one of the things that Alice said to me when she saw the first rough cut of the film, particularly the first sort of half which focuses a lot on her family and seeing archive of her brothers and again being reminded of where she was coming from, she was actually very tearful and she said, "You know, Pratibha, it was love; it was love that brought us through that, all of that poverty and all of what we were up against." And I think she celebrates black culture, black families in her novels that actually take and draw very much from her own experience.
Jo Reed: And she certainly does that very explicitly in her essay "In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens."
Pratibha Parmar: Absolutely, yes.
Jo Reed: That’s such a beautiful work. When I taught women’s studies that was one of the things I would teach practically every semester. It’s a remarkable essay that everybody should just go out and read right away.
Pratibha Parmar: Apart from which actually, Jo, you know-- because that essay was the essay that was very groundbreaking for me personally 'cause it was one of the first things I’d ever read written by Alice Walker, imagine my absolute spine-tingling moment as a filmmaker when I am sitting, researching Alice Walker’s archive at Emory University in Atlanta where I spent quite a bit of time and I was listening to all these tapes, these cassettes. And one of the cassettes was labeled "Telephone messages of congratulations after 'The Color Purple’ won the Pulitzer Prize" and I thought oh, well, let me listen to this, who were the people who rang her and left her messages. And I’m listening to it and actually it wasn’t any of that; it actually was this voice, very young, very raw, quite southern, a female voice that was reading that essay "In Search of My Mother’s Gardens," and I realized that was actually Alice Walker’s voice and that she had recorded that at home in her tiny, little cassette player after she had written that. And it was just one of those incredible moments in my filmmaking career where I was like blown away.
Jo Reed: Oh, I would think it would be. Remind us of the controversy around "The Color Purple." We know it won the Pulitzer Prize and in fact Alice Walker was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and "The Color Purple" also won the National Book Award, but there was also a lot of controversy about the book and the film and truly not unlike the controversy around Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes were Watching God."
Pratibha Parmar: Absolutely, and I think that’s there’s such a clear parallel in some ways between the kind of isolation that Zora Neale experienced in her lifetime to what Alice has experienced -- particularly after "The Color Purple" and not so much after the book was published but I think it was much more after the film that Steven Spielberg made. And I think because the film by its very nature as a genre reached so many more people and it was so much more visceral in a certain way for certain audiences than a book is and I think that the controversy was-- from what I see was an absolute shock and a surprise for so many of the people involved and I think particularly for Alice was a deeply painful part of her life. Beverly Guy-Sheftall says in the film it was probably one of the biggest traumas of her adult life to be vilified in the way that she was not so much by the larger white community but very much from within her own African American community to the point that she would be-- five, seven years later she is promoting her book "The Temple of my Familiar" and she’s still being criticized and taken to task by African American men in studios who are part of the audiences. And I-- as she says in the film, the violence, the verbal violence, the death threats, all of that continued for over five years until someone came along and said actually== in her defense and actually challenged that, but she said up until that point very few people had stepped up in her defense and very few people have found their voices and to say, "Actually, no. You know, what Alice Walker has written about is something that speaks to many of us." And people were afraid to do that, and I think that what-- in making this film what I realized was the absolute abject isolation and loneliness that Alice Walker faced as a result of the controversy around "The Color Purple" but you know, she has an incredible connection to nature, and it was nature that gave her the solace that she needed to heal.
Jo Reed: Yes. That is one thing I was going to say about your film, that it is a very visual film and nature plays such an important role in it, far fewer talking heads than is normal for a documentary about a writer.
Pratibha Parmar: Yeah. <Laughs> it’s really interesting 'cause I’ve grown up in England; I’m very much influenced by the new French wave cinema. I never did a filmmaking course. I have learnt filmmaking through my own efforts, I didn’t go to film school, and for me making a film is about the visual; it’s about letting images speak and sound and images and the juxtaposition of those things speak in ways that maybe a discursive talking head cannot convey. And for me Alice Walker’s work and her poetry really lent itself to a certain kind of visual treatment where layer upon layer of meaning can be created by recourse to certain kinds of images and certain kinds of visualization, and I wanted the writing from her books, the images from her books to kind of really come alive in a kind of three-dimensional way. So, you know, I worked very hard at that and I think it’s really paid off because people go away from seeing the film and say, "Wow." You know, the highest compliment I could have had was somebody said, "I felt like I have just been immersed inside a painting for the last 84 minutes" and to me was like "Yes. That’s-- that was my intention and it’s so great to hear when people get it."
Jo Reed: How did you begin your career in film?
Pratibha Parmar: Well, I come from an academic background and I had published a number of articles about South Asian people living in Britain and I was working on a Ph.D. at the time and Channel Four television in the U.K. had just come on the scene and they were working on a series of historical profiles on the black and Asian families in the U.K. And I was asked to be a consultant researcher on a couple of these and what these did for me was that I went from the whole process of researching, finding people who had stories to tell, going out on film shoots with the director, interviewing the people off screen, being part of the editing process. And it was during the editing process that I actually said to the director-- at one point I said, "I don’t know why you’re editing that out. I think you should be focusing on this story much more 'cause I think this interview is so much more interesting than what you’re using." And he sort of just turned 'round to me and he said, "Well, Pratibha, if you want to make your own films then I think you should go and do that" and I thought well, okay, you know what, why not; I think that’s a challenge I’m going to rise to, and here I am a couple of decades on and I’m making my films still.
Jo Reed: How long did it take you to make "Beauty in Truth"?
Pratibha Parmar: Well, the actual making of the film was only two to three years but the raising of the finance and everything took a lot longer so all in all from the time I thought about it to its completion was around six years.
Jo Reed: You didn’t anticipate this project taking that long, did you?
Pratibha Parmar: Absolutely not. I was actually quite shocked and surprised the challenges we’ve had trying to get funding for it, but I have to say I am really thankful to "American Masters" and particularly to Susan Lacy who’s the series editor who immediately saw how this would make an interesting film and came on board with some money. Obviously, she couldn’t come on board with the full amount of money but she came on board with some money, and also we applied to the NEA for a grant and we got a small grant from the NEA at a very crucial stage so all of that along the way helped us to get to the finish line.
Jo Reed: You spoke to a great many people in putting together your film. How did you choose who to talk to?
Pratibha Parmar: All of the people who are in the film-- the majority of them have had something to do with Alice’s life so if it’s not her family, her brothers, then people like Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones and Danny Glover all of whom were involved in the movie of "The Color Purple," which had a huge impact on Alice’s life, and then you know, Sonia Sanchez who was around at the same time as Alice Walker in the '80s when there was a kind of a literary renaissance of African American women writers and Sonia was able to speak to that moment. Sapphire who is an incredible writer in her own right who is in the film but she talks about how without the kind of groundbreaking work of Alice Walker’s and other writers of her generation her own writing would not have had the kind of impact and resonance and so I think all of the people in the film have a very interesting perspective on Alice’s story both personal and cultural and political.
Jo Reed: I was surprised that you dealt with the public estrangement between Alice and her daughter so forthrightly. That must have been very challenging.
Pratibha Parmar: You know, it was one of the most painful things to do in the film and it was a very difficult decision for me to make about whether to broach this or not, but given that Rebecca Walker has made the issue of their estrangement-- she’s written about it and it’s in the public domain and has made her feelings and her thoughts very clear and there had been very little from Alice quite deliberately and consciously on her part, but to make a film about someone’s life and not go into something that has been very difficult for that writer and has fed the writing in some ways too would have been a greater mission I felt as a filmmaker. But as a friend it was difficult because I had seen Alice go through the anxiety, the angst and how bereft she had been over the years with the estrangement and what was out there about her in the public domain and people jumping to all kinds of judgments about her and her mothering when it was based on very little fact and sometimes quite often on misinformation. So I had spoken to Alice and I said, "You know, Alice, in making this film I would have to go here. We would have to talk about it," but it was pretty much the very last thing that we filmed with her and we were both very nervous about doing it, but I am deeply thankful to Alice allowing herself to be vulnerable and to speak as emotionally as she does about such-- something so painful for her. Well, there’s a number of projects that I am thinking about working on. One of them, which I-- actually wasn’t initiated by me, which is unusual 'cause I only ever work on projects that I initiate, but this is somebody-- some producers have approached me after seeing "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth" and have asked me to direct a feature documentary on another feminist writer, controversial figure from the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin who is very much known for being very outspoken about-- against pornography so that’s a project I’m considering making at the moment.
Jo Reed: Well, if you do I look forward to it. Pratibha, thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
Pratibha Parmar: Thanks a lot, Jo. That was great.
Jo Reed: That was award-winning filmaker Pratihba Parmar she was talking about her documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. Which is part of the American Masters series and can be seen online on the PBS website.
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