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Alice Walker

Alice Walker

An Interview with
Alice Walker

By Esther Iverem Editor and Film Critic

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The Color Purple

"The Color Purple," now out on special-edition DVD, faced widespread criticism when it debuted in 1985.

A writer must always live with his or her own words—especially if they wind up on the big screen. And there is no better example of this idea than Alice Walker and her 1982 novel, "The Color Purple." In 1994, Walker dedicated an entire new volume, "The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult," to chronicling her complex journey as "The Color Purple" was made into a film. And now, more than 20 years after the novel's release, she is back on the trail talking about it again, as well as the firestorm that greeted the 1985 film directed by Steve Spielberg. Why? Because an enhanced "The Color Purple" DVD recently hit the shelves.

"The DVD, I think, is really special because you have some additions to the film itself that I think will really help people see how much commitment went into creation of the film," Walker said in recent interview with and other journalists. "I think that there were a lot of questions early on about how it was made. And a lot of those questions will be answered. And I think that it will be lovely for people to just see what a family we created on the set."

When it was published in 1982, "The Color Purple" raised a stir in the Black community because of its depiction of a brutal and soul-less Black man who abused his young wife Celie in the rural South. At the time, the book's portrayals of Black men, described as "often negative" by Mel Watkins in the New York Times Book Review, were seen by many in the Black community to be a part of a general trend in fiction by Black women.

Books by authors including Terri McMillan, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison and Walker, all with contracts at major publishing houses, included less-than-shining examples of Black manhood. Who can forget trifling Franklin in McMillan's "Disappearing Acts"? Or the buzzard Luther Nedeed in Naylor's "Linden Hills"? When Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for "The Color Purple," many took it as validation of a Black feminist voice, while others said that the awards only proved that Black women writers were being rewarded for bashing Black men. "I got tired a long time ago of White men publishing books by Black women about how screwed up Black men are," wrote Courtland Milloy, in his column for The Washington Post.

In "The Same River twice," Walker acknowledged such critics and quoted them. And now, even while promoting the DVD, she still says "The Same River Twice" closed the chapter on that part of her life.

"I looked at all of that controversy and criticism, and I put it to rest," Walker said. "But, you know, criticism comes, it goes. And, you know, you're lucky if, after they get through with you, you're left standing. And I'm very much left standing."

Since the book and film, Black film has undergone a renaissance and now there are a greater variety of images of both Black men and women on the screen. Walker says that she enjoys the work of many in this "new wave" of filmmakers, including Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, and is working with one of the producers of last year's critical hit, "Frida," on a film version of her book, "By the Light of My Father's Smile."

"I think that the book did help to bring in greater freedom for people to express how they view life," she said. "And, I'm very happy about that. Because you really can't, you know, be a good artist if you can't say what you really feel. And people may be offended, but that's how you feel, and that is your right, and that is your gift as well.

"…From the writer's point of view I think that [The Color Purple] has had a really good impact, especially on literature. And I think also on film. Even if you don't like it, you have to see the incredible acting and just amazing beauty of the people. I mean, I think that you would just have to feel that you want to have more of these people on screen. I know that's how I feel."

Walker said that in the Color Purple, as in other works, she worked for and in honor of her ancestors. "I always felt their help. I always felt supported. I have never felt alone in that sense, you know? I mean, even when I was alone with all the people doing whatever they do, I always felt my ancestors. And, over time, I guess, it just got really clear that they are the most honest and reliable critics and appreciators of one's work.

"…And when things like that are right, the synchronicity, you always feel your way to be the right way. I mean I felt like I was really on course, and that if I went off of it, they would let me know.

"…How many of those ancestors had to do whatever they had to do to make it possible for me to get educated, to actually end up sitting at a desk writing about them? I mean [when I was writing the book], I was just crying and laughing, and just really feeling love. You know, just love for them, their love for me.

"Love is big. Love can hold anger, love can even hold hatred. I mean, you know, it's all—it's all love. It's about the intention of what you want it to do. It's about what you're trying to give. And often when you're trying to give something, you know, it has a lot of pain in it. But the pain too is a part of the love."

She offered special support for women of color who need to forgive: "Well, you know what? Actually, some pain is so severe that there's nothing else you can do. I mean, forgiveness is the only remedy. I mean, unless you want to just worry it to the grave. Because ultimately, it hurts you, you know. The person that you are going on over, often they don't even remember. So there you are with your heart all hard and not forgiving. And, you know, wishing they'd fall over dead or something. And they don't even know.

So the best thing is to really work on yourself and opening your own heart and just letting all that stuff go. And it is possible. It sometimes takes a lot of time and a lot of sitting. You know, just sitting with yourself and trying to work with your own heart. And this is one of those areas where Buddhism is very, very good.

Finally, Walker affirmed her sense of activism as a writer and this sense of activism circles its way back to her voice in works such as "The Color Purple."

"Oh I, you know, talk at rallies, I march, I write. In fact, 11 days after 9/11, when the President was talking about retaliating by bombing people in Afghanistan, I made an address in which I talked about how we really do not want to be bombing children and women and people and donkeys and whatever else people have over there. You know? We don't want to be bombing the earth itself. It's wrong.

"I mean, when we're attacked and we suffer, what that's supposed to teach us is not that we want to attack other people to make them suffer. What it's supposed to teach us is that we don't want that to happen. You know? War is so obsolete.

"…We are a family," she said. "And we have all the different representations of humanity in the family. And, within this family, there has to be total freedom. There has to be the freedom to be yourself. You have to be free to express your views."

Esther Iverem's reviews also appear on and

-- February 28, 2002

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