“People really had a problem with my disinterest in submission,” says Alice Walker about her four decades as a public figure. “They had a problem with my intellect, and they had a problem with my choice of lovers. They had a problem with my choice of everything.”
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Color Purple is a controlled maelstrom in Pratibha Parmar’s admiring overview of her life and work. Parmar presents her subject as a pioneer in black feminist thought, a wholly accurate emphasis that nevertheless detracts from Walker’s considerable literary achievements.
The documentary also excludes critics who have legitimate disagreements with Walker, such as those who say she propagates notions of gender essentialism. But Walker’s life is so eventful — and her contributions so important — that the hagiography is worth forgiving. The film begins with Walker’s origins in the rural South and follows her through her 1967 marriage to a Jewish lawyer (their nuptials were legal in New York, but not in Mississippi).
Walker became a cultural lightning rod with The Color Purple, which was met with accusations of recycling racist narratives about the dysfunctional black family. Parmar skims over Walker’s post–Purple work, but does devote considerable attention to Walker’s ongoing feud with her daughter, Rebecca, and the writer’s campaigns against female genital mutilation. (Warning: there is a split-second view of a clitoridectomy.)
“Activism is my rent for living on this planet,” Walker declares. Parmar forgets, though, that art exists so we can think about something other than the rent.