“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” talks sexuality in film, literature and real life

If you have yet to see Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, make sure to tune in tonight when it premieres on PBS as part of American Masters. After winning awards at several film festivals throughout the last few years, the Pratibha Parmar documentary is an intricate look into the life of the feminist queer writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, from her struggles in the civil rights movement to the fame and infamy she gained with the popularity of The Color Purple.

American Masters - Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth

Beauty in Truth interviews people close to Alice and those that are close to her work in order to discuss her importance as well as the struggles she faced as a young, black, female writer growing up during the ’50s and ’60s in Southern America. Even those who have yet to read her work will be able to appreciate her place in American history with pieces of her poetry and stanzas of her prose woven throughout photographs, discussions and memories shared by Alice herself.

The Color Purple is also given significant time in the documentary. Out writer Jewelle Gomez says that The Color Purple expressed hopefulness for black women. Gloria Steinem said it was her more “populist” novel, and that it made it her novel for the whole world. “If you do one true thing,” Gloria said, “it continues wherever it goes.”

After The Color Purple won Alice the Pulitzer for fiction, it was made into a major film in 1985, starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey and catapulted Alice into the mainstream spotlight if she hadn’t been there before. Protesters took issue with the way the black family was being represented, as the men were abusive and the women were sexually fluid (despite the fact Celie and Shug’s relationship was toned down quite a bit for the film and was much more explicit in the novel).

“Until then there wasn’t really a major novel which included the romantic and sexual love between two women as part of a natural order of things,” Jewelle Gomez said.

“When I was thinking about Celie’s healing, I looked around at all the men she could have had a relationship with,” Alice explained. “Honestly there was not one that would have been a healing relationship for her because they couldn’t see her. All those incredibly beautiful qualities that she had, not a man that I could see in the story could affirm. It would have just been absurd. You wouldn’t have believed it. Shug, on the other hand, could see these qualities and affirm them and care about Celie. So it was very natural that that’s how it would happen.”

Alice’s own sexuality is also part of the film, as the writer has famously been involved with musician Tracy Chapman, as well as several other women (notably photographer Jean Weisnger and singer Zelie Kuliaikanuu’u Duvauchelle), and talks about her identifying as “curious.” (She’s been married to a man and dated several men, too.) Here’s what Alice says about her “curiosity”:

“I need space and quiet and peace and trees and grass and water, silence, the occasional visitor. I love cuddling so it’s very nice to have a sweetheart. I love being able to send him or her home when they need to go home. … I love women. Not every single woman on the planet, but women, the woman, the feminine. And I thought that if I fell in love with someone or if I felt attracted to someone that, as a curious person, someone whose curiosity is very strong, I would of course relate to them, and I would be with them. So when that happened, it happened and i went off into adventures with women and loves with women and good times with women and growth with women and it was all marvelous, even the heartache. I’m not lesbian, I’m not bisexual, I’m not straight. I’m curious. If you’re really alive, how can you be in one place your whole time? For me that doesn’t work.”


Alice Walker has, above all, inspired conversations about unspeakable subjects, from the black family to female sexuality to genital mutilation. She shares her truths and asks for others to do the same, to confront themselves and what it is they find to be. Beauty in Truth is a beautiful portrayal of Alice’s life thus far, and something anyone could take inspiration from.

PBS has a ton of great clips from the film and other exclusives from Alice and interviewees like Howard Zinn, Steven Speilberg and Quincy Jones, so head over to their site if you want to know more.