March 2003
An Interview with Alice Walker

Interviewed by Monikka Stallworth

An Interview with Alice Walker

Grab your favorite blankie, cuddle up on the sofa alone or with a friend, pop in The Color Purple DVD and get ready for a profound love journey - and donít forget the box of tissues, you WILL shed tears.

Up until a few days ago, it had been years since I last watched this cinematic masterpiece. Alice Walker provided the love roots to this oak tree of a film with an exceptional screenplay based on her award-winning novel and director Steven Spielberg brought the tenderness of an African Violet caretaker, keenly aware of the delicate layers that would be so gracefully revealed. And how about the cast? (Can I get a little valley girl here?) ďLike oh my gosh, they totally did their thing!Ē Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Willard Pugh, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Akosua Busia, Desrata Jackson Ö Everyone nailed their performances!

By the way, does anyone recall the backlash that Alice Walker received for the ďnegative portrayal of black menĒ in her book and in the film? I didnít feel that sentiment then and weíd be hard pressed to find someone to hang that banner on The Color Purple in this day and age when the state of, shall we say, ďurban pop cultureĒ unabashedly celebrates money gettingí pimps and willing booty shakers galore. Please.

But I digress. Under normal circumstances, I am not thrilled to do phone interviews Ė theyíre so impersonal and uninspired. How wrong was I? Alice Walker gives great phone! And even though there were ten other journalists on the conference call, each jockeying for a position - I, in my very delusional world, felt that Alice and me shared a special bond during that conversation. Maybe itís as simple as Alice put it, ďLove is big.Ē So, I would dare to say, everyone on that call felt a little special love from Alice during our chat.

MS: Itís been almost 20 years since the filmed version of The Color Purple was released. As the novelist and screenwriter, were you satisfied with the filmed version of The Color Purple when you first viewed it?

AW: Yes, but I had a hard time the very first time I saw the film because I saw it in an empty theater. It grew on me, and by the time it opened in New York City, I loved it, as did all of my family, some of whom came to the opening.

MS: What additional benefit do you think the DVD will bring to the audience who may have viewed the original film?

AW: Iím always amazed that so many people view it many, many times. I think what they will get from the DVD is a sense of how it was made. There were a lot of questions early on about how it was made and a lot of those questions will be answered. There will be wonderful interviews by almost all of the main participants. And, of course, Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Oprah, Whoopi, Danny GloverÖ a lot of people Ė I think it will be lovely for people to just see what a family we created on the set.

MS: How did your screenplay differ from the movie that was actually made?

AW: The screenplay was much sexier.

MS: Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that his one regret about the movie was that he was a bit shy when it came to exploring the relationship between Celie and Shug. Do you feel that their relationship was explored enough in the movie?

AW: Well, no, because his angle was very different. And Iím really at peace with that. Itís just that if I had directed it, of course their love life would have been much more vibrant. But, 15 years later or however many years itís been now, when I look at it, I think he did a beautiful, very sensitive job of depicting the depths of their relationship. Because what he manages to do is, he brings in the sweetness. And that is so fine.

MS: What is your fondest memory looking back, of filming The Color Purple?

AW: It was just an incredible high, in terms of the love. I donít know Ė I mean, it was my feeling that this probably doesnít happen often, you know, in Hollywood or Burbank, where we were. But there was just a feeling of love that was so pure. I think there was only one person on the entire lot that I didnít love and she was the poor woman who was telling the actors how to speak. I was very tuned into the speaking thing because I wanted to have people that my mother and my father and my grandparents sounded like, especially my grandparents. And this poor woman didnít really know, you know. So that was the only person that I felt wasnít really absolutely well chosen and there with her whole heart.

MS: Do you ever consider The Color Purple somewhat of a voice for those who have shared a similar experience?

AW: Absolutely. Definitely - I mean, it is totally that. Itís a way to support men and women who are in abusive relationships, you know? Who are trying to figure out how we got into this position, where after, you know, 400 years of slavery, weíre still treating each other like slaves. You know, itís very much that kind of supportive art.

MS: I first read The Color Purple when I was about 11 years old and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was enthralled and moved and I wondered about your intended audience Ė if that was something you had ever considered when writing.

AW: Oh, I never have an intended audience. I just write, you know. And Iím very happy. Thatís one of my fears. I was so afraid that these young people would get it and they would be upset. But I donít think thatís true. Most of the young people that I have talked to over the years have pretty much said what youíve said, you know, that they werenít scared or anything. They just got in there and learned a lot.

MS: I think the biggest challenge for me as a young reader was getting adjusted to the language.

AW: Yes.

MS: And I wondered, in light of the fact that you have been a tremendous advocate of the resurgence of Zora Neal Hurstonís work Ė how much of an impact did Zora have on your style of writing?

AW: Well, you know what we have in common? We have culture in common. Weíre southerners. Weíre southern black people. Sheís from Florida, Iím from Georgia - we have the same culture. So for me reading her, it was affirming, because I said to myself, ďhereís somebody who actually shares my cultureĒ. And she understands the same speech because her parents sounded like that too. So, I was actually dealing with my ancestors in a major way. And you canít get the ancestors to talk unless you can speak their language. I mean, itís very simple.

MS: What exactly does that mean for you and when did you realize that you worked for the ancestors?

AW: Thatís a wonderful question. Itís really hard to know when it just got really clear. But I always felt their help. I always felt supported. I have never felt alone in that sense. Even when I was alone with all the people who were 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 oneís work.

MS: So, on the set of ďThe Color PurpleĒ, with the actors, for instance, did you ever feel like you were in the presence of specific ancestors?

AW: Yes, sometimes I did. Oprah, for instance. I mean itís so amazing because sheís much younger than me, but she managed to remind me so much of my mother that I could hardly stand to look at her without weeping. And I donít know if you know Reuben Cannon, but heís a black man in LA who is the casting director. And he just Ė it was his uncanny ability to choose the right people.

So I did. I felt that very strongly.

MS: What do you do for fun?

AW: (Chuckling) Where do I start? Well, I dance, I go out dancing. I love to dance. I love having people over. Iím a member of several circles, and we meet regularly. I travel a lot. Iím learning to sail soon. So, itís very full.

MS: Are you hoping to reach a new generation of young adults with the release of the DVD?

AW: Oh yes, absolutely. I think our children really need to have something vibrant and something alive and something rousing, you know, to help them stay connected to life, to the life force. Theyíve been taken out by drugs just in droves and droves. And if we can produce art that has (the message that) life that is so precious, I think we can keep a few of them un-drugged.

MS: What aspect, as a result of The Color Purpleís success has really changed your life for the better?

AW: Just knowing that there are so many people, men and women, of course overwhelmingly women, who no longer have the shame about abuse.

MS: If my memory serves me correctly, when you wrote The Color Purple, its release was met with all sorts of disparaging press, particularly from black media outlets, for the way it portrayed black men. Those harsh criticisms are rare these days, not withstanding Jesse Jackson and Al Sharptonís recent protest of Barbershop. Do you think that your book was partly responsible for acclimating people to different sorts of portrayals of black men and women?

AW: Well I think that the book did help to bring in greater freedom for people to express, you know, how they view life. And, Iím very happy about that. Because you really canít be a good artist if you canít say what you feel. And people may be offended, but, thatís how you feel and thatís your right. And that is your gift as well. So, that was good.

MS: The Color Purple was up for quite a few Academy Awards, but didnít win any Ė how did you feel about that?

AW: You know, I was actually glad because I felt the institution of the Academy, in a sense, wasnít right enough. I mean, I never knew who those people were who were in it. I had my doubts, and I didnít know if they really could give me an award. They could pass out Oscar, but can they really ďawardĒ something? You know, I mean, who are they?

MS: What are some of your favorite films?

AW: I have to say that my memory is very poor on things like this, but three films come to mind right away that I really love: Daughters of the Dust. Itís just stunning. Another one is, of course, Frida. There arenít enough words to sayÖ And then the only other one that really pops right up is The Five Heartbeats, which I love.

MS: When was the first time that it occurred to you that you could be a writer, or that you would pursue writing?

AW: I started writing as a child. But I didnít think of myself, actually writing until I was in college. And I had gone to Africa as a sophomore or something, no maybe junior and wrote a book of poems. And that was my beginning. I published that book.

MS: How long did it take you to complete the writing of The Color Purple?

AW: Well, the actual writing of the book took about a year, but I had to, you know, get a divorce, leave New York, find a place to live out here and you know, take care of my child. But the actual writing, once I found my little cottage was about a year.

MS: On the DVD, Steven Spielberg mentions going to you to interview for the job of directing the film -

AW: Yes.

MS: What was it about Steven Spielberg that made him right for the job?

AW: It was just clear that this was the person Ė the ease with which we took to each other. You know, you donít want to be going off with anybody where you are feeling nervousÖHe turned out to be a real human being. You know, somebody who knew that he was in the presence of our people.

MS: On the DVD, you talk about feeling forgiveness. And I wanted to know what lessons you think we can glean from the forgiving that you talk about. How can we overcome what seems to be unforgivable?

AW: 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....unless you want to worry it to the grave because ultimately it hurts you. The person that you are going on about usually is - often, they don't 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 heart and just letting stuff go. And it is possible. It sometimes takes a lot of time - it's not easy -and a lot of just sitting with yourself and trying to work with your own heart.

MS: You have mentioned that you approach new works with love Ė is there ever a time when you approach them with anger or sadness or any other dismal expression?

AW: You know how big love is? Love is big; love can hold anger, love can even hold hatred. I mean, you know, itís all love. Itís about the intention of what you want it to do. You know, I mean, itís about what youíre trying to give. And often when youíre trying to give something, it has a lot of pain in it. But the pain too is part of the love.

MS: Thank you Alice.