Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. Directed by Pratibha Parmar. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 84 minutes.
Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992. Directed by Dagmar Schultz. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2012. 79 minutes.
“Sheer Good Fortune”: Celebrating Toni Morrison. Produced by Judith McCray. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2014. 72 minutes.
Alice Walker. Audre Lorde. Toni Morrison. Black women writers, creators, transnational cultural workers. Seekers of truth, by any means necessary. The three films reviewed here—Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992, and “Sheer Good Fortune”: Celebrating Toni Morrison—narrate the life histories, prolific literary production, and wide-ranging cultural impacts of Walker, Lorde, and Morrison, all while offering important insights about living a political life in and through one’s craft. Using multilayered narration, nonlinear poetic structures, archival footage, and reflections from other contemporary writers and artists of color, these films express the centrality of Black women’s writing to American literary cannons. First, this review attends to each film independently and then considers their collective insights, impacts, and pedagogical takeaways.
As the great, great, great, granddaughter of enslaved Blacks and daughter of sharecroppers from Eatonton, Georgia, Alice Walker inherited the weight and wings of Black southern writers’ traditions. The film presents Walker’s legacy as one that breathes, holds sorrow, and avows truth-speaking. From a young age, she found her way into this purpose through her writing. The film highlights specific periods of Walker’s life in which she gained critical insights into love, power, violence, and the painful nature of growth—all of which informed the way she stepped into her practice as a Black woman writer. As an undergraduate student at Spelman College in the early 1960s, Walker learned risk and witnessed—in horror—how elite, higher-education institutions remain complicit in structures of violence, especially throughout times of political upheaval and societal transformation. Throughout the 1980s Walker carved out an intervening literary space for Black, African, and third world women writers. Writing was neither just a hobby nor a means to a stable income for Walker. Throughout each section of the film, spectators gain the impression that Walker wrote to save her life. Writing, through the film, is understood as a survival. On a deeper level, it asks viewers, what are you willing to risk to save your life?
A great deal of the film is occupied by interviews with Walker herself—Walker becomes the guide to her own cinematic image. Such an autoethnographic style of narration allows for deeper resonance with the painful yet important lessons Walker learned throughout her career. “You can’t ignore the softness of yourself—honor this and let it move you,” she utters poignantly. Walker, writing from this softness, recognizes how, for large portions of her life, she came into spaces of generativity within her writing practice after great agony, rage, and depression.
The film shows the richness of Walker’s life, depicting her painting in her study, submerging her hands in the rich earth of her backyard garden and cuddling her chickens spliced with interviews with friends, former colleagues, mentors, and other Black women writers. Interviewees frame Walker’s writing as a portal shedding light onto the quotidian horrors and joys of Black life—transporting readers to yet-to-be-realized worlds. Creation, for Walker, is framed as a “dealing with reality” that transforms it, rather than something that demands escape. New practices and modes of storytelling, of archiving what has happened, is happening, to Black people give meaningful and complex presence to Black life. In this way, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth expertly comments on writing as a craft, radical practice, and way of finding one’s truth, even when it is painful—especially when it is painful.
Drawing from unreleased archival footage, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992 documents Audre Lorde’s life and widespread influence in Berlin during the mid-1980s and early 1990s. It offers important commentary on the embedded value of difference as mobilized by Lorde’s teaching, organizing, and political philosophy. Amidst the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, Audre Lorde, a New-York-born Black Caribbean lesbian feminist, traveled to Berlin and began teaching as a guest professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. Pleasantly surprised by the number of Afro-German women in her classes and public lectures, Lorde began connecting with them and seeding a new political movement of German women of the African diaspora.
Cinematically, the film works through the following question: what can we learn from our connected differences? It thus implores spectators to complicate difference and challenge the ways in which neoliberal multiculturalism has flattened, and often sought to tame, Lorde’s radical teachings.
In their interviews, Lorde’s students spoke to the particular moments in which Lorde encouraged them to trace the violences of white supremacist heteropatriarchy and their effects on Afro-German women. However, Lorde also affirmed for them that recognizing the power of their difference, the irreducible vibrancy of their experiences, was equally as important as tracing the terrors plaguing Black social life in Berlin.
Video-recorded excerpts of Lorde’s Berlin lectures and interviews with Lorde’s closest comrades and her students politicize survival in quotidian living and emphasize core beliefs of Lorde’s teaching and organizing: the radical uses of difference, the “double culture–double life” experienced by Black woman across the diaspora, and the importance of “using all of oneself.” Clips from lectures transition to feature a joyous and vibrant Lorde as she dances freely in the middle of a potluck gathering. She is surrounded by five other Black women—all are laughing and luminous. In this way, the film artfully demands that we see Lorde from within the political stakes she herself sets up. It impresses upon spectators just how important honoring process and always making room for joy were to her political work. This film pushes educators, artists, and students alike to realize not only that embrace of self and other is critical to movement building but, dually, how healing undergirds political transformation—messy, vexed, and sweet.
“Sheer Good Fortune”: Celebrating Toni Morrison is an immersive celebration of genealogies of Black women’s writing, centered around Toni Morrison. The film is wholly comprised of footage from a gathering in October 2012 that paid tribute to Morrison as a prolific writer, Black intellectual, and emblem of American literary traditions. This film animates Morrison’s legacy and claims the power of literacy to be tied to the freedom, self-making, and creative experimentation it engenders. Maya Angelou opens the documentary by reading the first few lines of Sula—shethen speaks from the heart about how Morrison’s prose rocked her, moved her, from the very first time she encountered the author’s words. One after another, Black women writers take center stage and return to verses of Morrison’s work that influenced their own literary practices. With each line of text read aloud—you feel Morrison’s spirit, you feel the richness of the Black socialites she writes from, about, and most importantly, toward. These enlivenings shape her into a prism—“sharp reflected everything”—through which other life-worlds and Afro-imaginaries can be thought.1 One experiences the stunning weight of Morrison’s literary productivity—the range of her prose and wide-reaching influence of her creativity.
Toward the end of the documentary, Morrison herself arrives, center stage. At first, she is speechless and takes her time soaking up her own words echoed in the voices and unique Afro-stylings of her interlocutors. She begins by stating what a joy it has been to sit and listen to her writing reflected back to her with care and artful flair and, while still visibly overwhelmed, offers sage advice to the audience: Craft and courage—hold tight to both for they need each other. Not everyone will like what you create—one has to believe in, invest in, the power of their own creation. Be clear—write with clarity, always. Relationships—literary production is not only about the relationship you develop with yourself around your craft but must also cultivate presence with those around you. Make the text come alive—beyond narrating what has happened to a given character at a specific time and in a particular place, detail the why and how of it. When doors open, walk through—one has to stand in the truth and power of their own gifts; demand this, and nothing less, from yourself. Finally, she assures the audience that the time has come when her work no longer belongs to her and her alone. It is a collectively owned multiplicitous litany for survival.
Truth exposes wounds yet works as a salve. The connective tissue between our world(s) begs that we move it—know its contours and how it may free us. Black women’s words are prisms—the generativity we’ve been waiting for.
It’s important to note that these films are incredibly accessible, even for those who haven’t read the authors’ work.1 As such, they are great tools for familiarizing students with the idea that literature and literary production is political. Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992, and “Sheer Good Fortune”: Celebrating Toni Morrison beg spectators to consider why people write, towardwhom people write, and how writing springs forth from the stakes of life. Their images give radical presence to often invisibilized Black feminist genealogies of art, literary production, activism, and community building. Black women’s representation—the ways their bodies and histories are approached in and though the cinematic—hold transformative powers, and when filmic mediums do justice to the nuance, complexity, and joy that structures Black (women’s) lives, the product can be a powerful, pedagogical tool for educators of all fields. These films do not build up an image of the ever-giving, strong-beyond-belief, self-sacrificing Black women. They do not rest on tropes and narratives of Black womanhood that deny Black women creativity of self, space for doubt and loss, or complex gender performance. Together, the films skillfully contextualize Walker’s, Lorde’s, and Morrison’s literary and activist work as a collective dedication to fighting border imperialism, anti-Black racism, and complacency through intentional alliance, reflection, and creative experimentation. Audiences come away with a heightened awareness of how the work of solidarity building was as much a part of their lives and legacies as their literature. In so doing, these feminist films highlight the long-held traditions of Black feminist writers laboring toward generative spaces of exchange, love, and solidarity.
1 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 29.
2 Some texts educators might assign students are Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in her Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 110-14; Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983); Evelynn M. Hammonds, “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence,” in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed.M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 170-82; Linda Martin Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, ed. Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 97-119.