Author-activist Alice Walker profiled in PBS film 'Beauty in Truth'

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 3:40 p.m. MST

Alice Walker as a child in her personal scrapbook.

PBS

Celie and Nettie. Two characters who stand shoulder to shoulder with Huckleberry Finn and Jim.

It was Ernest Hemingway who proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’”

Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” shares aspects with Twain’s novels.

Some readers have found the colorful stories Huck tells immoral, sacrilegious and inappropriate for children. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Mass., banned “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” calling it “trash and suitable only for the slums,” and other libraries follow suit. In the decades after Twain’s death in 1910, the novel gains the status of a masterpiece.

Nearly every year since the publication of “The Color Purple,” it has made headlines for literary merit. Yet those merits have been shadowed by challenges in schools and academic institutions. The novel appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books at No. 17 — despite the Pulitzer Prize Award (which made Walker the first African-American woman to receive the honor) and the National Book Award for Fiction.

PBS chronicles Walker’s career and civil rights activism in the American Masters documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” airing on KUED on Friday, Feb. 7, at 8:30 p.m. The program honors Walker on her 70th birthday and marks Black History Month. She is positioned as a key literary figure in 20th century American culture.

Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s documentary looks at key moments in Walker’s life, from a childhood of poverty and racist violence in the segregated South and her subsequent involvement in the civil rights movement (including her historic interracial marriage) to the release of the groundbreaking and wildly successful novel.

“Beauty in Truth” includes interviews with Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg and other defenders, who poignantly come to an artistic defense of Walker’s right to be heard. And it does not shy away from the very public estrangement from her only child Rebecca, who wrote a frank memoir criticizing both of her parents, and Walker’s longing for the grandson she has yet to meet.

Although thoroughly enjoyable, the documentary has an enveloping weakness: It is overly worshipful. The film is sure to delight her fans and add insight to those who only know her for “The Color Purple,” but there are no other voices to place the author in perspective. Her critics are glossed over as people who don’t seem to understand Walker.

However, as “Beauty in Truth” reminds, Walker has been a pivotal part of shaping public discourse on issues that had never really been discussed before. And her courage and passion are undeniable.

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