The Color Purple
The Color Purple is a 1985 American-made dramatic film, based on an Alice Walker novel of the same name and directed by Steven Spielberg. The Color Purple was filmed in North Carolina, is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and focuses on the lives of African American women in the rural southern United States.
Walker's novel was published in 1982 and was quite successful, earning positive reviews from both critics and readers. The Color Purple was awarded both a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the American Book Award. In both the film and the novel, The Color Purple traces the life of Celie, a poor, uneducated black woman who must combat abuse and poverty to survive. An important theme of the film is the way that women must rely on one another to survive. All of the female characters find strength in one another. In the book, the homosexual relationship between Celie and Shug is clearly defined, while in the film, Spielberg provides only an oblique suggestion of this relationship. Another significant difference is that Walker's novel consists of a series of letters, many written to God. The film mostly dispenses with this format, as instead, Celie simply narrates many of the events of her life.
Spielberg and Quincy Jones coproduced The Color Purple, with Jones also providing the musical score for the film. The screenplay was written by Menno Meyjes and was produced by Guber-Peters, Amblin Entertainment, and Warner Brothers. The Color Purple was quite successful when it was
released and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, though it failed to win any. Of the five nominations for Golden Globe Awards, only Whoopi Goldberg emerged a winner, in the Best Actress category. Spielberg won a Best Director award from the Directors Guild of America. However, Spielberg, as a white director, was criticized by the Coalition against Black Exploitation for directing a film about African American women.
The film opens with two young girls playing in a field of purple cosmos flowers. The flowers are tall and beautiful. When their father appears, the girls stop playing, and that is when the audience sees that one of the girls, Celie, is pregnant. The year is 1909. In the next scene, Celie gives birth to a baby girl, who is taken from her arms. Her father tells Celie that the baby is dead, and she is never to tell anyone about the baby. She should only talk to God.
A widowed neighbor with several small children appears and asks to marry Nettie, but her father says no and instead offers Celie as a wife. Since Celie can no longer bear children and is accustomed to hard work, her father says she is a better choice. The widower, called Mister in the film, agrees and is given a cow to sweeten the deal. Mister's house is filthy, and his children hate their new stepmother. Celie's life with Mister is filled with hard work, but she fulfills the bargain her father made in marrying her to this man. She is fourteen years old.
One day in town, Celie sees a baby and thinks that she recognizes the little girl as her baby, Olivia. She begins to think that a local minister, Samuel, and his wife, Corrine, have adopted both of her babies. Before the birth of Olivia, Celie had already given birth to a baby boy, prior to the beginning of the novel. As would be the case with Olivia, Celie's father took the baby and told her that her baby boy was dead. Seeing Olivia makes Celie hopeful that both of her babies are alive and well. Back home, Nettie arrives; she has come to live with Celie and Mister. Nettie ran away to escape her father, but she is not safe with Mister, either. Nettie tries to teach Celie to be strong and to recognize her own strength. When Mister's boys are mean to
Celie, Nettie tells her sister to stand up to them, but Celie cannot see herself as strong, nor does she think that she deserves the respect of these badly behaved stepchildren. Nettie also teaches Celie to read.
While Nettie lives with her, Celie is more of a child again, playing games with her sister. Their happiness does not last, however. Mister begins stalking Nettie, who fights back. Mister's pride is wounded, and he throws her off his property. Celie's heart is broken.
In the next scene, Mister looks forward to a visit from Shug Avery, whom he clearly loves. Mister receives a letter from Shug, and when Celie asks if there is a letter for her, Mister tells her that she is not to touch the mailbox, ever. This warning is given as a threat, and as a result, Celie never touches the mailbox. In whatever free time she has, Celie works to improve her reading by studying Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, about an impoverished orphan who must face great struggles to survive. At about this point in the movie, Whoopi Goldberg takes over the role of Celie to portray her as an adult.
Mister's son, Harpo, asks his father if he can marry Sofia, who is pregnant. Mister insults Sofia, asking if Harpo is even the father of her unborn baby. Sofia storms out, but eventually Harpo chooses Sofia, and the two are married. It soon becomes obvious that Sofia runs the household. When Harpo asks for advice on how to get Sofia to behave, Mister and Celie tell him to beat her. Harpo beats Sofia, and she beats him back. The process is repeated for several years until Sofia gets fed up. She takes their children and leaves Harpo.
Later, Celie is reading on the porch when she notices that the sky has darkened, and she thinks that something big is about to happen. That something big is the long-anticipated arrival of Shug Avery. She is sick, and Mister tells Celie to nurse her back to health. The first thing that Shug says to Celie is “You sure is ugly.” Shug calls Mister by his name, which is Albert. Celie repeats this name over and over, as if she had not realized that Mister had a real first name. Mister is frantically running around, trying to fix something for Shug to eat, to light the stove, to find a pot, and all that Celie can do is sit and watch him. Shug accuses Mister of trying to kill her and throws the plate of eggs that he has prepared back at him.
Celie prepares food for Shug, who eats everything. Celie helps Shug bathe, and the two talk about children and fathers. Shug asks Celie about her father and then begins to weep for her own father, whom she says never knew that he loved her. Celie comforts Shug, singing to her as she helps her bathe. The camera cuts to Mister, standing just outside the door, listening to the two women.
Soon, Mister's father, Old Mister, comes to visit. Celie overhears him saying mean things about Shug. She gets a glass of water for him and spits in it. Celie remarks that people just don't like people who are too proud or too free. After calling Shug a whore, Old Mister leaves, but not before drinking all the water in the glass. Celie promises to put some of Shug's pee in the next glass of water that she serves the man.
Now that Sofia has left him, Harpo decides to turn his old house into Harpo's Juke Joint, a bar and dance hall. Shug sings there on opening night, and Mister and Celie watch her adoringly. Shug performs a song called “Miss Celie's Blues,” and Celie is very touched. Sofia walks in with a new boyfriend, but soon, Harpo and Sofia are dancing together. Squeak, Harpo's new girlfriend, tries to separate them. Squeak calls Sofia a heifer, and Sofia slaps her. A fight breaks out, not only between Sofia and Squeak but with their respective boyfriends and their kin and friends all joining in.
Back home, Shug has Celie dress up in her fancy dress. The two women begin dancing, and soon Celie is laughing. It seems as if Celie has never smiled and laughed before. Shug says she will be leaving, and Celie's laughter dies. She tells Shug that Mister beats her when Shug is not there. He beats her for “not being you.” Shug tells Celie that she is pretty; she had called her ugly when they first met only out of jealousy. Celie tells Shug that Mister uses her but never treats her as a wife; he does not love her. Shug responds that she loves Celie, and Shug kisses her. Celie responds as if she has never been kissed before. The scene ends on film with a suggestion of a deeper physical relationship between the two women. In contrast, the novel is more direct in describing their sexual relationship.
Shug visits the local church and tries to speak to her father, but he walks out and refuses to speak to her because her lifestyle has disappointed him. Shug is planning on leaving and returning to Memphis. Celie wants to go with her, but Mister catches her trying to pack. She denies that she is doing anything. As Shug walks to a waiting cab with Mister, Celie trails behind,
carrying Shug's luggage. When Shug asks Celie if she has something to tell her, Celie silently withdraws and finally blurts out that she will miss Shug.
In town, the mayor's wife, Millie, asks Sofia to work for her as a maid. Sofia says, “Hell no.” The mayor steps up and slaps Sofia, who punches him back. Sofia is beaten and thrown into jail, where she remains for many years. When she is finally released, she is forced to be a maid for the mayor's wife after all. At a store, Celie steps up to help Sofia as she does the grocery shopping for her employers. Millie says she will drive Sofia to see her children the next day, which is Christmas. Sofia has not seen her children for eight years. Sofia has changed and is vastly different from the strong determined woman who first married Harpo. She has aged dramatically during the many years she was in jail; she is gray and frail and blind in one eye. She is also hesitant and frightened to greet her own children, who barely remember their mother. Sofia weeps because she does not know her children anymore. Meanwhile, Millie, who is teaching herself to drive, cannot get the car into reverse. The men try to help her, but she becomes hysterical, thinking they want to attack her. Sofia comforts her, and Millie insists that Sofia return back home with her immediately. Sofia has only been allowed five minutes with her children. She will be forced to work for the mayor's wife for many more years.
The story skips to 1936, six years later. Shug arrives with her new husband. Both Mister and Celie, who are excited to see Shug, are upset at the news that Shug has married. Shug sees her father and tries to tell him that she is married, but he simply drives off without acknowledging her. Mister and Shug's new husband appear to have bonded over their mutual affection for Shug. Shug walks to the mailbox, and when she returns, she hands Celie a letter from Nettie. It is the first time in more than twenty-five years that Celie has received any word from her sister, whom she had thought dead. But Nettie has been writing ever since the sisters were separated. She now writes at Easter and Christmas, when she hopes that Mister will let Celie have one of the letters. Nettie writes that Samuel and Corrine did indeed adopt Celie's children when they were born, as she had once suspected. The children have been alive all along and are fine. Nettie has been living in Africa with Samuel and his wife, who are now missionaries there. Because Shug picked up the mail and gave Celie this letter, Celie learns for the first time that she still has her own family: not only her sister but also two children, Olivia and Adam.
Shug and Celie find the letters that Nettie has been sending, which Mister had hidden under a floorboard. Celie's joy at discovering them is contagious. The two place the letters in order according to date, and Celie begins reading them. As Celie begins reading the letters, Mister interrupts to demand that Celie bring him a cool drink. She turns her back on him and walks away. As Nettie describes her journey to Africa and what she sees when she arrives, the scenes in the film shift to show some of these events. Celie continues reading the letters as she completes her chores, attends church, walks into town, and goes about her business. Nettie relates the joys and tragedies that she has encountered while living in Africa, including Corrine's death.
Mister interrupts the reading of these letters to slap Celie for not answering his calls and to demand that she shave him. Mister continues insulting Celie, calling her names and threatening her. As she sharpens the razor, Shug runs toward Celie to try and stop her from killing Mister with it. This is scene is intercut with scenes from Africa and the stories that Nettie has related about the ceremonies that she has witnessed.
The next scene is a group dinner, during which Shug announces that she and her new husband are leaving. It is also Sofia's first dinner with the family since her servitude with the mayor's wife ended. Shug tells Mister that Celie is coming with her. Mister protests, but Celie announces that she knows about Nettie and about her children. Celie finally tells Mister, Old Mister, and Mister's children what misery they have created in her life. Sofia, who has been sitting quietly, begins to laugh and tells everyone that she knows what it means to be imprisoned and to have her life beaten out of her. Sofia thanks Celie for everything she did for her and for trying to make Sofia's life better. Squeak announces that she is leaving with Shug as well. She tells a protesting Harpo that her name is Mary Agnes and she is to be called Mary Agnes and not Squeak. At this news, Mister finally stands up and speaks. He tells Celie that she is ugly and skinny and that she will be back, since she has no talent and is too scared to speak and stand up for herself. He tells Celie that she is
fit only to be Shug's maid. During this entire exchange, Old Mister joins in with more insults. Celie pulls a knife on Mister, but Shug and Sofia tell her not to touch him because he is not worth it; Celie deserves more than to be in jail as Sofia has been. As they drive away, Mister continues yelling insults at Celie. She promises that all that he has done to her will be returned to him.
In the next scene, Celie is on a train crossing into Tennessee. She is smiling and happy, leaving her former life behind. Meanwhile, Mister's home is a wreck. He is drunk and ignoring his work in the fields. His house is filthy and filled with animals. Old Mister tells Mister that he needs a young woman to take care of him and the house. Every night Mister is at Harpo's Juke Joint, drinking and trying to dance by himself. Harpo and Sofia send him home so drunk he can barely walk.
Celie returns home for the funeral of the man she thought was her father. She has learned from Nettie's letters that this man was her stepfather and that the children she bore him were not the children of incest, as she feared. The home, the land, and the shop that had belonged to their mother become the property of Celie and Nettie, but since Nettie does not want this inheritance, it becomes Celie's property. She opens a business in her mother's former shop, where she makes pants for men and women. While Sofia and Harpo try on some of the clothes Celie has made, she looks out the window and sees Mister standing outside staring into the house. In the next scene, Shug and Celie walk through a field of purple blooms called cosmos flowers. Shug tells Celie that God has made the extravagantly beautiful purple flowers and wants everything to be loved.
As Mister sits alone on his porch, he listens to the sounds of happiness coming from Harpo's Juke Joint across the pond. Shug sings a song about sisters to Celie and brings her flowers. The scene is intercut with scenes of the gospel choir at her father's church singing “Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Somethin'.” Shug begins to sing along as she walks to her father's church. As she enters the church, still singing, her father finally embraces her.
Mister receives a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It is addressed to Celie; but instead of giving it to her, he goes to the local immigration office, where he provides the necessary information for Nettie and Celie's children to return to Georgia. In the final scenes of the film, Nettie and Celie's children arrive from Africa. Nettie and Celie embrace, and Nettie introduces Celie to Olivia and Adam and to Adam's wife. Mister stands off in the distance watching. Shug, Harpo, and Sofia watch from the front of the house. The film ends with Celie and Nettie playing the same sisterly game that opened the film, while they once again stand in a field of purple flowers.
Because the screenwriter had to condense the novel's ninety letters and nearly three hundred pages into a two-and-a-half-hour film, The Color Purple leaves out many aspects of the novel. Celie narrates some sections of the story, but unlike the novel, in the film the narration is only rarely noted as letters to God. Only in the section of the film where Celie reads the letters from Nettie is the device of the letters once again given a large role. In the novel, these letters provide a great deal of detail about Nettie's life in Africa and about her relationship with Samuel, whom Nettie marries after Corrine dies in Africa. In the novel, after Celie learns that her father was not biologically related to her, she and Shug go to meet him, and they find that he has married a fifteen-year-old girl. Celie's time living with Shug in Tennessee and Shug's divorce and relationship with a much younger member of her band are not included in the film, and the film is also vague about when Celie returns to her hometown in Georgia, although it is presumed to occur after the death of her stepfather. In the novel, Celie returns to visit Sofia and Harpo, and Mister fails to recognize her as she walks by their former home. Mister has been forced to take care of himself, and he even learns to cook and clean, unlike in the film, where he appears unable to cope with living by himself.
In the novel, Celie receives a telegraph that Nettie and Samuel are thought to have drowned in a boat that was sunk, but Celie cannot believe that Nettie is dead. In the novel, Celie and Mister become friends, and she teaches him to sew. The film keeps him as an outsider, whose only interactions with Celie are viewed from a lonely distance. Many of the conversations between Celie and other characters are deleted from the film, including a conversation between Celie and Shug where each woman explains her concept of God. Celie thinks that God is a man and that he does not listen to her; she has had a lifetime of being mistreated by men. Shug, though, thinks that God is neither male nor female and that God is
found within nature and within people. The full nature of Celie's sexual relationships with her stepfather, with Mister, and with Shug are glossed over in the film and only suggested through short film shots.
Shug is a blues singer who befriends Celie and later serves as an inspiration and an example of strength. Margaret Avery plays this role in the film, but the singing is provided by Tata Vega. Shug's career as a blues singer and performer and her many love affairs contribute to her reputation as a woman who is both exciting and strong. Shug is also a caring woman who helps Celie reunite via a series of letters with her sister and children. In the film, Shug struggles for her father's approval, which he withholds, since he does not approve of the way she leads her life. They are reconciled in the end. In contrast, in the novel, Shug's parents are both deceased. The quest to please her father in the film version makes Shug appear less strong and more dependent on a man than in the novel, where she is very independent and a woman of strong opinions.
Shug enables Celie to find a way to escape from her life as a victim of abusive men. Shug never allows any man to control her; excerpt for her quest for her father's approval, she is always the one in charge of the relationship. Throughout the film, Shug moves in and out of Celie's life. Shug's presence eventually teaches Celie that she is worthy of receiving and giving love. Although her name is a shortened form of “sugar,” there is nothing simply sweet about Shug. The novel makes clear that Shug rejected her birth name of Lilly and chose Shug as her name instead, but the film never addresses the origin of her name.
Corrine is Samuel's wife and a missionary to Africa. In the film, she is played by Susan Beau-bian. Corrine is unable to bear children of her own, so she adopts and raises both of Celie's children. In one scene, Celie sees Corrine holding a baby, whom Celie recognizes as her own daughter, Olivia. In the novel, Corrine becomes very jealous of Nettie and grows convinced that Nettie is having an affair with Corrine's husband. This subplot is eliminated from the film.
Grady, Shug's husband, is played by Bennet Guillory and appears only briefly in the film. He and Albert bond over their mutual admiration of Shug.
Leonard Jackson plays Celie's stepfather, Alphonso Harris. He rapes Celie and tells her that he has murdered the two children to whom she has given birth. His role in the film is very brief.
Celie's sister, Nettie, is played by Akosua Busia. Nettie escapes her stepfather's unwelcome advances by fleeing to Celie's house. Nettie loves Celie; she takes the time to teach Celie everything that she is learning in school. When she rejects Mister's advances, Nettie is forced to leave Celie, in an especially heartbreaking scene. Nettie never abandons Celie, though, and for many years writes letters to her older sister. However, Mister hides all of the letters to Celie and allows her to think that Nettie is dead. Nettie is able to be educated, and her travels to England and Africa make her more sophisticated and confident than Celie. Nettie's role in the film is much smaller than in the novel. She appears briefly in the middle, during the segment in which Celie reads Nettie's letters about her adventures in Africa, and finally when the two sisters are reunited.
Albert “Mister” Johnson
Danny Glover plays Albert in The Color Purple. Most of the time, Albert is addressed simply as “Mister.” In the novel, he is referred to as Mr._____. Shug calls him Albert, but his name is used only rarely. Mister is bitter and mean in general, and he is cruel to Celie. He beats her often, shows her no love or affection, and keeps Nettie's letters from reaching her, further isolating her from her only true family. He allows Celie to think that her sister is dead. Mister treats Celie as property—a slave—and not as a wife. She is berated and beaten and generally ordered around as if she is not capable of a single thought of her own. Mister has no regard for Celie's feelings or her happiness. To call Mister evil, though, would be too simple. He is capable of great love and kindness, as his love for Shug suggests. At the end of the film, Mister has mellowed and is often in the background, watching Celie. The film suggests that he misses Celie, but they remain apart. In the novel, however, he and
Celie become friends. Mister has changed and grown and become a good person. The film softens the depiction of Mister but tends to make him more one-dimensional than in the novel.
Celie Harris Johnson
Celie is played by Desreta Jackson as a child and by Whoopi Goldberg as an adult. The Color Purple is Celie's story. She narrates part of it, and the experiences are largely hers to relate. She is poor, forced to marry when she is fourteen years old, and barely educated enough to write a simple letter. As a child, Celie is raped by her stepfather and gives birth to two children, whom she thinks are dead because her stepfather tells her that he has murdered the children. She thinks that her stepfather is her biological father. He tells Celie that she is ugly and stupid, and later her husband, Mister, tells her the same things. As a child and young woman, Celie seemingly accepts that abuse and rape are her lot in life; she never complains. She thinks that she deserves her victimization. Although she is devastated at being separated from her sister Nettie, Celie accepts that this is her lot in life. Celie's only resistance is embodied in the letters that she writes to God, a device in the book that appears only briefly in the film.
For most of her adult life, Celie believes that her sister and two children are dead. When she discovers the letters that Mister has been hiding from her and learns that Nettie never forgot her, Celie is reborn. Her anger at this deception explodes, and for once, Mister cannot control his wife.
As the film evolves, Celie finds the strength to leave Mister and start her life over. She is able to combat his final outburst of verbal abuse with an attack of her own, in which he finally begins to understand that Celie is no longer a victim and he can no longer control her. Celie creates a career through her sewing, which also gives her a way to express herself. She discovers that the house where her stepfather lived is really hers. She moves in and opens a store, where she sells the pants that she makes for men and women. She reads, and her life with Shug fulfills her, giving her a person who loves her and whom she can love. In actuality, many more people love Celie than she realizes. At the end of the film, Celie's children, her sister, Harpo, Sofia, and Shug surround her. The scene is one of great happiness.
Harpo Johnson is Albert's son. Willard E. Pugh plays this role in the film. When Celie first arrives at Mister's home as Harpo's new stepmother, he hits her on the head with a large rock. As a young man, Harpo sees his father as some sort of role model, and like his father, Harpo thinks that women are men's servants. Harpo is frustrated by Sofia's refusal to obey her husband. He thinks that beating her into submission will force her to acknowledge him as her master, but he is wrong. Harpo grows in the film. Initially he is weak and undefined, but by the end of the film, he has grown and matured, and he is reunited with Sofia. The two form a true partnership. Because the film's focus is on Celie, very little time is given to defining and realizing Harpo's growth and maturity. In the novel, Harpo grows fat, and he is less attractive than he is in the film.
“Old Mister” Johnson
Adolph Caesar plays the role of Mister's father, called “Old Mister.” Old Mister is rude and nasty to Celie, who retaliates by spitting into his glass of water when he visits. Old Mister is especially notable for having taught Mister that the way to control a woman is to beat her. He is insulting to women and considers them useful primarily as domestic slaves.
Oprah Winfrey plays Sofia. Sofia is described in both the novel and the film as a large, strong woman, who is capable of doing the work of a man. She walks with purpose and demands to be treated with respect. She is also loyal and kind to both children and other women. When she first appears in the film, Sofia watches Celie wait on Mister as if she were a slave and is astounded at this scene of servitude. Sofia has the courage to confront Mister and the courage to leave Harpo when he mistreats her. Sofia refuses to tolerate the demeaning treatment that most women must endure in their society and decides to actively resist any kind of oppression, whether because she is black or because she is a woman. She refuses to be controlled by her husband, Harpo, who tries to beat her into submission. She refuses to be a maid for the mayor's wife. After the mayor slaps her and she punches him in return, she is jailed, where she is beaten so severely that she nearly dies. Sofia spends eight years in jail, while her children grow up without
her. Although Sofia had initially refused to work as a maid for any white woman, after she is released from jail, she is forced to work for the mayor's wife for many years. After she is reunited with her family, she and Harpo reconcile and find happiness together.
The mayor's sole role in the movie is to hit Sofia after she refuses to be a maid in his household. She hits him back, knocking him to the ground and embarrassing him. This results in her being sent to prison. Phillip Strong plays this role in the film.
Dana Ivey plays Miss Millie, the mayor's wife. Millie is condescending toward Sofia, whom she appears to regard as little more than a slave. When Miss Millie finally allows Sofia to see her children on Christmas, she has less than five minutes with them before Miss Millie demands that they leave, because Millie is frightened to be around black people.
Carl Anderson plays Samuel, who, along with his wife, Corrine, adopts and raises both of Celie's children. He is a missionary and takes both children to Africa to be raised. He also takes Nettie to Africa to help with their missionary work. In the novel, Samuel marries Nettie after his wife dies, but this fact is not mentioned in the film. His role in the film is much briefer than in the novel.
Harpo's mistress, Squeak, is played by Rae Dawn Chong. Squeak's real name is Mary Agnes, but the audience does not learn her name until late in the movie. Squeak is not beautiful by conventional standards, and her voice squeaks (hence her name), but she does not allow that to stop her from singing. Her role in the book is broader, but in the film, she is notable for two scenes. In one, she fights Sofia over Harpo's attentions. In the second scene, she asserts her independence from Harpo, declares her real name, and leaves with Shug to pursue a career as a blues singer.
Swain is played by Laurence Fishburne. Swain helps his friend, Harpo, build and open Harpo's Juke Joint. His role in the film is very small.
There are many minor characters in the novel that are either eliminated from the film or so diminished that they become insignificant to the narration. These include Celie's mother, who is not identified by name or even seen; Kate and Carrie, Mister's sisters; Tobias, Mister's brother; Bub, one of Mister's sons; Odessa, Sofia's sister, and Odessa's husband, Jack; Suzie Q, Harpo's child with Squeak; Jimmy Hodges, Squeak's father; Bubber Hodges, Squeak's uncle and the prison warden, who rapes Sofia while she is in jail; Miss Beasley, Celie and Nettie's teacher; Olivia and Adam, Celie's children, whose roles are diminished in the film; James, Shug's son; and May Ellen, Celie's stepfather's last wife. There are at least a dozen other very minor characters who have little more than walk-on roles in the novel and who never appear in the film.
At the beginning of The Color Purple, Celie is a child who is beaten down, raped, and victimized, but she retains a core of strength that is not always visible. Celie's strength is revealed in her efforts to protect Nettie from being raped, first by her stepfather and later by Mister. Celie's strength is also evident in her ability to survive so much tragedy and abuse. In the novel, she grows into womanhood and becomes strong through the letters that she writes to God, but this element is eliminated from the film. Instead, in the film, Celie grows and finds her voice through Shug's friendship and love. Shug offers a model from which Celie learns to be strong, and in turn, Celie helps Sofia survive the brutal conditions of her imprisonment as a slave for the mayor's wife, Miss Millie. Shortly after Sofia is freed from jail, she is taken to shop for groceries for Christmas dinner. Sofia is no longer the strong and sassy woman that she was early in the film. She walks slowly, with her head down and her eyes unfocused. She seems lost and confused. Celie approaches Sofia and helps her with the shopping list. Sometime later, Sofia tells
Celie that this kindness helped her to survive. By the end of the movie, Sofia is again a strong and confident woman, while Celie has used her talents to open her own business making pants for men and women. She has also emerged a strong and independent woman.
Initially, it is Shug's strength that holds many of the women together. Although her father, who disapproves of her life choices, has rejected her, Shug assumes a demeanor of strength that she does not always feel. She simply moves beyond her own disappointments to take on a persona of strong self-confidence that convinces the other women that Shug is a force of strength. She knows that Celie is being treated badly and so takes her back to Tennessee with her. Shug also takes Squeak to Tennessee with her and helps her get established as a blues singer. Shug's support allows Squeak to finally find a voice and demand that she be called by her true name, Mary Agnes. Nettie's role is diminished in the film, and all that the audience learns is that she has found her own strength and voice in Africa, where she has grown into a strong and confident woman. By the end of the film, all of these women have demonstrated their strength, and it was often the example of other women that made it possible. Although the experience of women helping women is not exclusively a black woman's experience, the history of black women as oppressed, first through slavery and later by white society and black men, is illustrated in The Color Purple through the female friendships that Celie experiences. In her autobiographical prose work In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes about the importance of relationships with women as a source of personal strength in her own life. The Color Purple, with its emphasis on women's lives, serves to illustrate the kinds of women's relationships that Walker has herself experienced.
The Color Purple begins with the birth of a child to a fourteen-year-old girl. It is the second child that Celie has born to one rapist, the man she thinks is her biological father. She is given to another man in marriage, but she becomes more a slave than a wife. She is beaten and threatened, and even Mister's children beat her. When one of those children, Harpo, asks how to control his wife, he is instructed by Celie herself to beat her. Violence is all that Celie knows about the relationship between a man and woman, and beating seems normal to her. Sofia's most memorable speech is directed to Celie, when she says that she has had to fight her brothers her whole life and now she has to fight her husband as well. This is also Celie's life, and so she no doubt
wonders why Sofia might have expected anything different.
Celie's life is a life of just existing and barely surviving, until Shug arrives. Then she begins to blossom; but as soon as Shug leaves, Celie once again becomes the victim of her husband's rages. Even Shug, the strongest woman in the film, is a victim of male abuse, as her father repeatedly rejects her. His emotional abuse devastates her. By the end of the film, Shug has reconciled with her father, but this reconciliation comes after she sings a gospel song, not while she is singing the blues that define her life. At the film's conclusion, Sofia is once again a strong woman and has reconciled with Harpo. Celie and Shug live together in Celie's home, where the only man present is her son, Adam, who brings his wife to his mother's home. Although Celie has spent much of her life as a victim, controlled and beaten by men, by the end of the film she and the women who surround her have emerged as strong women who have survived their relationships with the abusive men in their lives.
Quincy Jones's music is one of the most notable features of The Color Purple. His use of string instruments establishes mood and often elicits a response from the audience. For instance, the music that accompanies Celie's search for Nettie's letters is strong and fast-moving, capturing her desperation to find the letters. The track “Sophie's Walk” is meant to evoke this woman's strength and determination to control her life. The music is not limited to instrumentals, though. Two of the songs for the film, “Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)” and “Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Somethin',” are meant to be inspiring. The latter song, in particular, recalls the gospel music tradition and makes a powerful statement about the strength that these women must have to survive their lives. Both are sung by Tata Vega, who provides the singing voice for Shug. The music is so powerful that it instantly reminds the listener of the particular scene in the film that the music accompanies. It is worth noting that many critics actively dislike the music, which they consider too sentimental for such dark plot points.
Aggie Guerard Rodgers's costume design for The Color Purple was nominated for an Academy Award. The setting was the rural South in the first half of the twentieth century, and it was important for the costumes to be historically accurate. The costume designer must take the director's vision and turn it into reality, first with sketches and later with costumes. Costume design includes not only the clothing that actors wear but also shoes, hats, and accessories, such as jewelry. In several scenes, Celie, Sofia, and Shug wear hats that fit their personalities: Celie's hats are plain and black, but one of Sofia's has a brim filled with flowers and color. Shug's hats tend to be more glamorous because her life and personality are more glamorous than those of other characters. In one scene, where she says good-bye to Mister, she is wearing a brown velvet cloche hat, which was a popular style for women in the 1920s. Most of the men wear straw hats, which are associated with summer warmth and the need to shade one's face.
Although the novel The Color Purple is set between 1910 and the end of World War II, the film is much less clearly defined with regard to dates. The film includes only a few dates for reference, and while the novel provides vague references to historical dates, the film makes little effort to link the events in Celie's life with outside influences. As a result, Celie's story stands alone, separate from the artificiality of dates, and the focus is on her personal and emotional growth and not on her age.
Spielberg uses both exterior and interior settings for his film. The interior scenes are primarily in the large two-story house in which Celie lives with Mister; the exterior shots of this house suggest that his farm is very successful. Celie never describes the house in the novel, but Spiel-berg creates a pleasant rural setting that is in contrast to the dark content of the film. In this beautiful white home, with its nice furnishings, its comfortable large porches, and its expansive green lawns, Celie will be beaten and abused. Her life is dark and lonely, even though the setting for the house suggests a life that is happy and joyful.
The Color Purple is set in Georgia, although the movie was actually filmed in North Carolina. The production crew planted the fields of
flowers that figure so importantly in the film. The seeds were for pink cosmos flowers, but the crew thought, from the picture on the outside of the seed package, that the flowers would be purple. It was necessary for the crew to paint many of the flowers in the foreground to create the illusion of a whole field of purple flowers. It is not clear what kind of farming Mister might do on his property, since most of the time the audience sees fields filled with gently blowing purple flowers. There are also trees and a gentle stream. There is a pond near the house, across from which is Harpo's Juke Joint. The nearby church is traditional in its white steepletopped beauty. Against this beauty, Celie's stepfather gives away her babies, Mister tries to rape Nettie, and Celie tells Harpo that the best way to control Sofia is to beat her. The postcard beauty of the landscape, like the beauty of the home and church, is a denial of the reality of their lives. In this setting Spielberg presents an artificial and idyllic backdrop for domestic horror.
Lack of Opportunities
The setting for The Color Purple is Georgia between 1910 and 1940. Walker's novel is fictional and not intended to be an exact history. However, both the novel and film do suggest the oppressive racism that was present at the time these events are meant to have occurred. Although slavery had been officially ended in Georgia with the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, the lives of most blacks had not improved much in the decades since then. The characters in The Color Purple are constrained by the racist laws that govern their lives and limit their opportunities to escape poverty and oppression. Jim Crow laws were first enacted late in the nineteenth century as a way to segregate black people from their white southern neighbors. These laws were designed to separate blacks from whites on public transportation, in restaurants, in theaters, and at drinking fountains. Sharecropping, a system where farmers worked land owned by someone else and paid the rent for that land with a share of each harvest, made it very difficult for poor farmers to own their own land. Separate school systems kept black children from receiving an education equal to that received by white children.
Because men felt victimized by Jim Crow laws and racial hatred, they often used black women as a target for their anger and frustration. Walker speaks of this oppression and the resulting abuse in her commentary included on the 2003 special edition DVD of The Color Purple. Black men continued to work in the fields as sharecroppers or tenant farmers, doing the same work they had performed as slaves. The depiction of Mister and Old Mister as landowners actually contradicts common practice for the first half of the twentieth century; very few black men were as successful as the film shows them to be. Since white men owned businesses and established the market for black goods, the result was that blacks continued to live an economically suppressed life, with no real means of gaining either upward mobility or the respect that comes with advancement. As a consequence of economic suppression, men resorted to violence against women as an outlet for the rage and anger that they felt toward whites but were unable to express. Sofia grows up in a home where the women are beaten. For Celie, the abuse extends far past frequent beatings, but the root cause of the abuse and disrespect of women in this movie lies in the men's feeling that their lives have no economic value and no real purpose.
The Harlem Renaissance and Singing the Blues
The Harlem Renaissance serves as the backdrop for Shug's career as a blues singer. The Harlem Renaissance drew writers, musicians, and intellectuals to a movement that became known as a way for the black community to express responses to the political and social issues that were affecting their lives. Although the Harlem Renaissance is often identified with the writings of the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, music, especially jazz and blues, was also an important feature of this movement. It is the music identified as the blues that is most prevalent in The Color Purple. The blues evolved out of the spirituals and work songs of black people in the rural South. This music tended to be secular in content, as opposed to religious. It is the music of the field hands and the laments of the poor. The blues might be focused on love but more often were concerned with troubles of other sorts. Blues music was typically sung by a single performer, as is the case in The Color Purple when Shug performs. Blues performers
were often women. Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of an especially popular song, “Crazy Blues,” led to a greater interest in women singing the blues. Recording studios focused on black audiences as a way to sell the music of black women singers. Whites also enjoyed this dynamic and expressive music and were drawn to the Harlem Renaissance because of it. Of course, it is not only Shug who establishes a career singing the blues in The Color Purple. After Squeak leaves Harpo, Shug helps her become established as a successful blues singer.
Spielberg's film vision of The Color Purple earned a mix of condemnation and praise. Most of the condemnation was in response to the fact that Spielberg was a white director of a cast that was almost entirely black. Other critics who condemned the film were dismayed that it was not exactly the same as the book and that Spielberg made changes that were perceived as having been made to make the film more appealing to and successful with white audiences. Sheila Benson's review of The Color Purple for the Los Angeles Times focuses on this latter issue—Spielberg's choice to make the film so beautiful and appealing. Benson comments that none of his previous films have “hinted at an affinity for small-scale, interior, ruminative poetry nor for the emotional lives of noncontemporary characters.” Rather than an action film, which Benson considers to be Spielberg's natural area, the director has chosen to film a book about relationships, and as a result, Benson finds that “almost every decision” that Spielberg has made “has been disastrous,” with poor results in the too-broad comic scenes, elements that are “prettified or coarsened” inappropriately, and a screenplay that “tiptoe[s] over the story's crucial relationship.” The “almost-perfect” casting, though, offers an exception to these disastrous choices. Whoopi Goldberg's Celie is “compelling” in a “touching debut.” Margaret Avery's Shug is “electrifying” and “tremulously hypnotic.” Oprah Winfrey's Sofia is “indomitable and unforgettable.” Although Benson finds Danny Glover the wrong physical choice to play Mister, he makes the character “vigorous and dangerous.”
In a review for Time magazine, Richard Corliss begins by observing that the finished film is nothing like the book on which it is based. Like a calendar that capitalized on Walker's popularity, the film is “a lavishly illustrated, well-intended, self-inflicted knockoff.” Corliss argues that the film has none of the complexity of the novel, a complexity that raises Walker's work above the film's cynical and simplistic ideas that “Sisterlove is beautiful, and Men stink.” Rather than being faithful to the honesty of the book, Corliss finds that Spielberg chose to “elegize the story by romanticizing it, swathing the characters in Norman Rockwell attitudes, a meddlesome symphonic score, and a golden fairy dust that shines through the windows like God's blessing.” According to Corliss, the result is “cinematography not cinema.” The film is simply too beautiful and too sweet. Janet Maslin voices similar complaints in her review of the film for the New York Times. She also finds it too pretty and lacking the “realism and grit” of the novel. Spielberg has, according to Maslin, “looked on the sunny side of Miss Walker's novel, fashioning a grand, multi-hanky entertainment that is as pretty and lavish as the book is plain.” Rather than depicting a “harsh, impoverished” rural landscape, the film is a “cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland,” where even “the wife-beating villain has charm.” For Maslin, the film has too much in it that is sheer fantasy, from the filth in Mister's home that Celie quickly conquers to crops that are successful enough to support Mister's lifestyle and yet seem to require no labor to either plant or harvest. All of these scenes are too simply rendered and too filled with stereotypes, says Maslin, to really capture the complexity and depth of Walker's novel, from which “characters spring to life on the page.”
Not every critic was so negative about the film, though. Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, loved it, labeling it the best film of 1985 and predicting that Goldberg would win an Oscar for best actress (a prediction that did not come true). In a review that contains not one dissatisfied comment, Ebert reveals that this film affected him deeply: The Color Purple, he says, is a “great, warm, unforgiving, triumphant movie, and there is not a scene that does not shine with the love of the people who made it.” Nearly twenty years later, Ebert returned to The Color Purple and once again reviewed the film following the release of a new DVD edition. He admits that with the passage of time, he can see more clearly that the movie does have flaws: it “seems more inspired by set decoration than real life,” as the fields of purple flowers are the biggest crop grown in this “bucolic farm landscape.” Ebert acknowledges the moments of slapstick and the cutting of some important material from the book, and he also faults “Spielberg's postcard landscapes, his broad characterizations and the convolutions of the plot.” However, for Ebert, these are not problems that detract too greatly from the film's appeal. There are lessons to be learned from the film and particularly from Celie's struggle. Ebert argues that “the greatness of some films depends not on their perfection or logic, but on their heart.” For Ebert, at its center, The Color Purple contains sufficient heart to surpass any negative aspects that might also be present.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol holds a doctorate and is a university lecturer in interdisciplinary studies. In the following essay, she discusses the depiction of the community of women in the film version of The Color Purple.
Much of the controversy that surrounded the film release of The Color Purple focused on the book's and film's negative image of black men as abusers or on the choices that the white director made in filming the novel. Much of this criticism is so focused on the issues in the film responsible for so much ire that many critics have ignored the many strengths of the film. The Color Purple is about Celie's survival and growth, and her emergence as a woman of strength. The film depicts a young women who has suffered at the hands of a father figure and continues to suffer at the hands of her husband, but who is surrounded by women who help her to see that her future need not be as tormented as her past and present. In her essay “Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave,” Alice Walker claims that African American women have the ability to become collectively the “Goddess of the Three Directions”: that is, when women draw upon one another for strength, they are capable of assessing where they are now, where they have been, and what the future holds for them. They assess their lives, make the kinds of choices that are necessary to survive in the moment, and look to the future for a better world. This is what the women in The Color Purple do. In this film, these strong women form a sisterhood from which they offer one another all
of the support, love, and guidance that each woman needs to survive and grow in strength and beauty. This sisterhood of loving women gives The Color Purple its focus.
The Color Purple celebrates the life and dreams of Celie and the women who surround her. Nettie, whose absence is painfully felt throughout Celie's life, begins the film with her sister and completes the film with her return. When Celie's father tells her that she has “the ugliest smile this side of creation,” it is Nettie who takes Celie's hand in comfort. It is Nettie
who comforts Celie when she gives birth. It is Nettie who tells Celie she must stand up to Mister's children, who are cruel to their new stepmother. When Celie replies, “I don't know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive,” she relies upon Nettie to be her strength. Nettie goes to school on behalf of both girls and comes home to teach Celie how to read. The scene in the film in which Mister forcibly parts Celie and Nettie is cruel and painful to watch. The sisters' deep love for one another is clear, and their anguish at being forced apart dominates the scene and is wrenching for the audience. Nettie is Celie's true sister; but The Color Purple provides Celie with a sisterhood of women who will comfort and love her throughout her life.
Once Nettie is forced to leave, Celie is truly alone in the world. She has no advocate to ease her life of drudgery and abuse. Celie must find another way to survive. There are several women in the film who help to transform Celie into the woman who emerges at the film's conclusion. Jacqueline Jones writes in her essay “Fact and Fiction in Alice Walker's The Color Purple” that the women in Celie's life form a sisterhood that allows each of them to survive the violence and pain with which they live, especially the violence and rejection they suffer at the hands of the men in their lives. These women are mostly silent sufferers, because they have learned that it is only with silence that they can survive. Jones notes that “the anger that black farm wives might have felt toward their menfolk rarely found public expression.” Although the women of The Color Purple might be representative of black southern women who are abused by men—including Celie, Sofia, and Squeak—they are not stereotypes. Each one is depicted as an individual with a distinct personality. Jones claims that these women “illuminate the diversity of female temperament” and that they never sacrifice the elements that make them unique. For example, Celie finds a way to support herself that ultimately frees her from any man who might seek to control her life: she begins making pants for black men and women. The pants are individually designed and are created to fit every size. As Jones makes clear, sewing was an accepted form of work for black women, but Celie is that rare black woman whose entrepreneurship makes her independent of white economic control. Celie sews, but her sewing is far above the ordinary sewing that defines the lives of many other black women. In the movie, she is shown fitting pants on Harpo and Sofia, while Mister stands outside and watches through a window. The scene is brief but makes clear that Celie has done well for herself and that she is a strong, independent woman. Mister's brief gaze provides a contrast to Celie's strength and success. The former man in her life is relegated to standing outside and gazing wistfully in at the woman he abused for so many years.
The sisterhood of women finally gives voice to its unity at the dinner scene when Shug tells Mister that she will be leaving and that Celie is leaving as well. Celie, Sofia, and Squeak each speak, and for the first time, it becomes clear that each of these women has dreams that thus far have remained unspoken but that are now being realized through the efforts of Shug. The scene is beautifully shot, and more than any other in the film, it illuminates the sisterhood of Celie, Sofia, Shug, and Squeak. That Shug is the heart of this sisterhood does not come as a surprise to the audience. In the novel, Shug is the one woman who has complete control over her life. She does not need the support of either men or the community of women. This is changed in the film, when her father, who is deceased in the book, is transformed into a preacher who rejects Shug because her lifestyle is too unconventional. Only at the film's conclusion do they reunite. Although rejected by her father through most of her adult life, Shug is otherwise free of the male abuse and control that are central to Celie's, Sofia's, and Squeak's lives. Shug is confident in her beauty, assertive in her control over the men who admire her, and possessed of an assurance that she is an exceptional women who deserves the admiration of both men and women. In her discussion of the film that appears on the 2003 special edition DVD, Walker says that the song that Shug sings to Celie, “Miss Celie's Blues,” in the scene that takes place in Harpo's
Juke Joint, is an amazing song that provides healing for Celie. It is Shug who tells Celie that she is beautiful and that she is worthy of being loved. This is the gift that Shug gives to Celie—a sense of self-worth and the joy of being loved. By the end of the film, Shug has joined the circle of women who share in Celie's life.
Although Shug is the rescuing heart of the sisterhood of women, Celie is the emotional center to which each woman gravitates. In his review of The Color Purple for Time magazine, Richard Corliss remarks, “Celie's story is one both of injustice, at the fists of black men, and of emotional regeneration, at the caressing hands of black women.” One could argue that in giving women the endurance to withstand the oppression and brutality of their lives, it is men who are marginalized and defamed. Walker makes a deliberate decision to depict men in this manner. In the supplemental material included in the 2003 release of The Color Purple, Walker speaks of her two grandfathers, who were abusive to their wives, and how she finally came to understand that it was the oppression of black men that was being redirected toward the women in their lives and played a large role in the tradition of male abuse of women. She also explains that women do not need to suffer this abuse, and so the creation of Sofia, who refuses to suffer at the hands of men, is Walker's attempt to illustrate that women can choose not to be submissive. Sofia, of course, pays a heavy price for her refusal to succumb to male abuse.
Sofia first comes into Celie's life when she turns up pregnant and wanting to marry Harpo. As Celie watches Sofia coming up the road to meet Mister, Celie says that Sofia “just be marching, like goin' to war.” Sofia is big and strong and willing to work like a man, but she also demands the respect of men. Respect is not forthcoming from Harpo, who sees his father's abuse of Celie as an acceptable model for how husbands should treat their wives. Celie also sees the abuse of wives as a normal part of marriage and advises Harpo to hit his wife to control her behavior. Sofia quickly hits him in return. Jones points out that the “skinny and thin-skinned Harpo recoils from her [Sofia's] strength, and tries to shower her with verbal and physical abuse.” Sofia, whom Jones labels “formidable,” is more than a match for Harpo. Later, when Sofia confronts Celie, Sofia says, “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain't safe in a family of men.” Sofia has grown up with males who hit women, and she is determined that she will not tolerate physical abuse. Eventually, she leaves Harpo. Her defiance of black men spills over into how she treats white men and women, and as a result, she spends years in jail, where she is routinely raped and beaten. Upon her release, Sofia becomes a quasi-slave for the mayor's wife. In spite of the abuse she endures for being a strong woman, Sofia provides a model for Celie, who cannot help but admire the younger woman's strength, even as she wishes for more of her own.
Squeak's role is diminished in the film. In the novel, she sacrifices herself to free Sofia from prison, and the reader understands that Squeak is not a women to be dismissed as inconsequential. However, the film jumps from Sofia's arrest to her position as a maid for the mayor's wife without revealing under what circumstances Sofia was released from prison. Sofia has aged while in prison and appears with gray hair and a battered face, but the transformation in Squeak is also dramatic. After Sofia returns home, Squeak is no longer willing to be called Squeak. She is no longer willing to live in Harpo's shadow. She has sacrificed herself for another woman's freedom and she has earned a place for herself in the community of women. Squeak reclaims her name—Mary Agnes. She is also ready to leave Harpo and has found the strength needed to move away and go with Shug to begin a career as a blues singer.
Remembering and honoring the women who changed the world is crucial to Walker. She writes in her essay “Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave” that her own nieces appear to have little memory of the past and of the changes these earlier women helped to create. The Color Purple recalls these women and the journey they undertook to survive and to emerge with stronger identities of self. Hanna Nowak argues in her essay “Poetry Celebrating Life” that “with her celebration of black life, the South, the spirit of community and, most of all, of black womanhood,” Walker clearly situates herself within the tradition of African American writers who praise African American womanhood. In “Honoring the Difficult,” Walker writes about what she wanted to achieve in depicting the strength that black women find in one another. She writes that “all the women in The Color Purple … together are the sacred feminine that, because of the accessibility of
film, can be beamed across a world desperate for its return.” The film's depiction of the sacred feminine suggests, according to Walker, the “infinite possibilities for women.”
In a 1973 interview, Walker told John O'Brien that she is “committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women.” Walker finds their stories compelling. Black women have survived in the face of oppression and indignity. Their survival, according to Walker, makes them “the most fascinating creations in the world.” She further explores the lives of African American women in her essay “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,” where she discusses the artistic talent that her mother and other women had but were unable to express. In this essay, Walker pays homage to her own mother, whose efforts to create beauty in her family's life required hours of effort each day, both before leaving to work in the fields and in the evening after she returned. Walker writes that her mother “handed down respect for the possibilities,” as well as the determination to make the possibilities real. Walker writes that in the post-Reconstruction South, African American women “dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves.” They dreamed of things they did not understand, these grandmothers and mothers, but “they waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known.” Celie's dreams come true at the end of the film, when she inherits her mother's home and store and begins to reconstruct her life as a successful seamstress and entrepreneur.
Rather than discuss the controversies that surrounded the release of this film, it is far more fruitful to discuss the film that resulted. The Color Purple is more than a film by a white director. It is more than a black author's novel turned into a screenplay by a white man. It is a film about a sisterhood of women who love one another, support one another, and help one another to survive, in spite of rapes, beatings, and subjugation. The Color Purple is about the love that these women forge for one another and the sisterhood that gives them the strength to endure. These are the many strengths that are on display in this film. In focusing on the love and support that these women share, Spielberg has created a film that transcends the race or gender of its director. As a result, The Color Purple transcends the abuse that these women suffer to reveal how a sisterhood of love can create healing.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on The Color Purple, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2012.
In the following review, Kauffmann views The Color Purple as a significant advancement in the portrayal and participation of African Americans in contemporary film.
The history of black actors in Hollywood films has few surprises: it closely reflects current social attitudes. (By “Hollywood” I mean white-controlled films made anywhere in America; the black film industry, which began making features in 1918, is a quite different subject.) Before sound, black actors were cast as “Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks,” as Donald Bogle says in his book of that title. Leading black roles, when they occurred, were played by white actors in blackface. For example, in 1927 Warner Bros. made a picture about two black comics in World War I. They were called Ham and Eggs: the picture was Ham and Eggs at the Front. The leads were played by two white men blacked up. The script was by Darryl Zanuck, and the female lead was played by Myrna Loy in blackface.
The arrival of sound, which provided the chance to use black music, inevitably altered matters somewhat. As early as 1929, two all-black features were made in Hollywood: Hearts of Dixie, directed by the now-forgotten Paul Sloane, and Hallelujah, directed by the well-remembered King Vidor, who had already done The Big Parade and The Crowd. From time to time through the next three decades, pictures with black casts—or nearly all-black—came along once in a while; of course, in the last dozen or so years, they have appeared much more frequently.
Now—and it's a landmark—the most successful director-producer in the world history of film has directed and produced a (virtually) all-black film [The Color Purple]. The juncture of Steven Spielberg and a black subject reflects current American society as black employment in film has always done, but in this case there's an extra dimension. Spielberg has become a golden eminence not just through talent, which he certainly has, but also, perhaps especially, because he is not the least bit shrewd. He is open and self-gratifying. It's easy to imagine the story conferences at which a lot of latter-day black films were
cooked up to cash in on what's happening. It's impossible to imagine anything like that with Spielberg. He makes us feel that, as producer or producer-director, he makes films that he himself wants to see. He apparently operates on the assumption that if he wants to see it, the international film public will also want it, an assumption that is now pretty well validated. So it's significant that he wanted to see, thus wanted to make, a film of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple. If Spielberg is a congenital vicar for an immense public, which he seems to be, then an immense public is ready for a black film that tells some unpleasant facts about black American life.
Walker's novel won a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award and has been read by millions. (This is no guarantee of film success; the past is strewn with failed film transcriptions of bestsellers.) Except for one salient episode, The Color Purple is not about black-white relations: it is about blacks. Specifically, it is about the mistreatment, the abuse, of black women by black men. As literature, Walker's book seems to me to have much the same relation to, say, Jean Toom-er's Cane that The Exorcist has to The Turn of the Screw. Walker's novel is often affecting, but at a somewhat elemental level. The book is composed of letters, most of them written in so-called black English that in itself evokes pathos. Celie, the heroine, addresses letters to God. (Later there are more literate and much less moving letters from her sister who escapes from rural Georgia to become a missionary in Africa.) “Dear God,” begins the book, “I am fourteen years old.” Then come two crossed-out words. Then: “I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” That salutation, those crossed-out words, the bewildered appeal launch the book at once on its accessible way.
God gives Celie plenty of signs of what is happening to her, most of them oppressive, but Celie endures, with taciturn courage. A sketch for those who don't know the book: the story follows this Georgia farm girl from 1909 to 1931. Her stepfather gives her two babies, then takes them away. She doesn't know where they are. Then he hands her over for marriage to a widower who had come to ask for Celie's sister. Her husband tyrannizes her and taunts her with his passion for a band vocalist. Celie, continually jeered at as ugly, is first told otherwise by the singer. Sex to Celie has merely meant submission to men. It is a woman, this singer, who introduces her to sexual pleasure. Celie matures, achieves independence, eventually returns to her husband, and at last is reunited with her missionary sister, who also brings Celie's children home.
The book might have been written for Spiel-berg. Walker and he are both genuine, both skilled practitioners of popular art. It seems inevitable that this should be the book to switch him, temporarily anyway, from space sagas and kid stories. About the only serious adjustment that Spielberg and his screenwriter, Menno Meyjes, had to make in the book was to diminish the lesbian element, which is only implied.
Allen Daviau has photographed the film in colors that are the visual equivalent of Quincy Jones's lush music: Spielberg apparently feels that the flooding music and color transcend artifice because of the authenticity they adorn. Moreover, Spielberg keeps the camera below eye-level a good deal of the time, often near floor-level, looking upward as if to assert that he feels the story is epic.
For Celie, Spielberg, with his usual good instincts, chose Whoopi Goldberg. Her stage name is some sort of joke that she is now stuck with: her abilities deserve better. She is a solo performer of sketches she herself creates. Her Broadway appearance last year demonstrated that her performing talent is better than her writing. Goldberg's future in film is a wide-open question, I'd say, unless there is a place for a female Eddie Murphy; but as Celie, she is perfect.
Danny Glover, the widower who weds her reluctantly, goes from strength to strength as an actor. Up to now, he has played sympathetic roles—notably, the vagrant in Places in the Heart. Here he plays a brute who mellows with the years. Glover makes the younger man both terrifying and understandable, and makes the mellowing as credible as anyone could do.
Two women are outstanding. Oprah Winfrey is a plump proud woman who pays grievously for her pride. Margaret Avery is Shug (short for Sugar), the singer who bewitches Celie's husband but whose love turns out to be the liberation of Celie's spirit. Avery is worldly wise, yet warm and lovely.
The film travels a bit errantly and sluggishly toward the happy ending we know it must have, whether or not we've read the book, but Spiel-berg's convictions carry it through: his conviction
that this is now the moment for a mass-appeal film on these aspects of black life and his conviction about happy endings. Clearly he believes that happy endings are integral to film, that they are what film is for. These two convictions, of instance and of principle, sustain this picture.
Source: Stanley Kauffmann, “Sign of the Times,” in New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 4, January 27, 1986, pp. 24–25.
In the following review, Mars-Jones discusses the flaws in both the novel and Spielberg's film adaptation, arguing that the two works rely too heavily on melodrama.
Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple is based ‘upon’ Alice Walker's novel, and the reverence of the preposition is eloquent; but every film of a book is an involuntary act of literary criticism. Faults of structure tend to stand out rather starkly when the words are stripped away.
Spielberg's difficulties with tone, particularly in the early scenes, are revealing. He films the heroine's childbed in the dead of winter with so much realism that the newborn baby steams, then in the same scene shows her father—also the father of her child—snatching the baby from her arms with a brutality that would make even the villains from silent films, for all their hand-rubbing and moustache-twirling, hiss him off the screen.
There is more villainy in store for poor Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). When a man comes to court her sister Nettie, her father gives Celie away instead, unasked and unasking. Nettie stays at home until Pa's sexual harassment becomes intolerable, then pays a visit to Celie in her new home. Celie's husband in turn makes Nettie's life a misery with his propositions. When Nettie leaves, he vows to intercept any letters she writes to Celie, and does so for the next several decades.
The Color Purple, whether as a film or as a book—where the vigour of its dialect does something to disguise things—depends heavily on the plot-machinery of melodrama, with none of the serenely lubricated momentum of Victorian plot-machinery. Nettie, for instance, ends up as a missionary in Africa, and companion to the couple who have—unknowingly—adopted Celie's children. She lives, then, with her nephew and niece, unable to reveal the true basis of their relationship, just like Lady Isobel in East Lynne returning disfigured after a railway accident to be governess to her own children.
Having committed herself wholeheartedly to contrivance, the author of East Lynne would not then simply let things slide. In The Color Purple Nettie's return to America with Celie's children could have happened at any time, and is just another thing that happens to Celie—a joyous thing, admittedly, rather than an atrocious one, but a mere unmotivated event all the same.
Nor would Mrs Henry Wood, had she been able to write such a thing, have started a book with an incestuous rape and then let it fizzle out. Celie's Pa turns out not to be her father at all; and that is not a plot twist but a plot unravelment.
One of Spielberg's methods, faced with such uneven material, is simultaneously to exaggerate and underplay, setting up a sequence broad to the point almost of slapstick and caricature and then choosing a subtle, or at least indirect, angle for his camera. So a crucial punch is obscured by a passing car, and Celie's husband ignorantly pouring kerosene on the stove is represented by a cut to Celie's suddenly deserted rocking-chair, the flames blooming only in reflection on the wall.
When Spielberg comes to dramatise Nettie's letters, which Celie finds in a strongbox of her husband's, he pulls out all the stops on his technique, setting up a string of visual and acoustic correspondences between Celie's surroundings and Nettie's, cutting from one continent to the other. The effect is emotionally impoverishing. If reading a letter is as good as being there, where's the sting of separation?
In the book, there are two means of overcoming separation: sexuality (between women) and a sort of pantheism. Spielberg attenuates both, and it's hard to blame him. A Color Purple without lesbianism would be like a whale-free Moby Dick; but Spielberg shows the relationship between Celie and the blues singer Shug Avery—whom Celie's husband also loves—only in one scene of chaste but lingering kisses. He has already taken risks with his audience by making a film in which Blacks are defined by their relationships with other Blacks, women by their relationships with other women. Now he leaves the viewer to calibrate those kisses on a scale from sisterhood to sensuality.
His problem is different with the book's rather icky pantheism—The Color Purple is dedicated to the Spirit, and the author thanks her characters for coming. A book can get away with the suggestion, two-thirds of the way through, that ‘God is everything,’ but the movie camera is just
naturally pantheistic. It can't keep the world out that long. Every panning shot wants to turn into an act of worship, and what we call cutting could just as easily be joining.
Spielberg substitutes as the climax of his film a celebration of culture for the book's celebration of nature. Shug Avery, estranged from her preacher father, leads a party from the juke joint where she has been singing and gatecrashes his gospel service. Her blues voice sings out against the gospel choir, and the warring elements, sacred and secular, African and American, come together in harmony. It's a brave rhetorical solution to the narrative weakness of a book whose attraction was always its flesh and not its bone structure.
Source: Adam Mars-Jones, “Mauve,” in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2885, July 11, 1986, pp. 27–28.
In the following review, Simon criticizes Steven Spielberg's direction of The Color Purple.
What is an insuperable problem for a film-maker who specializes in gadgets, sentimentalized children, and cute creatures from outer space? Adults—anything at all to do with grownups living their quotidian lives. To be sure, this is a problem for Hollywood as a whole; it is more intensely so for Steven Spielberg, for whom becoming a movie director seems to have been the surest way of trading in his toys for bigger and bigger toys while (in a juvenile version of The Picture of Dorian Gray) remaining himself forever small. In The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker's novel, the toys have become suffering human beings—blacks in rural Georgia between 1906 and 1940—and the film has become an infantile abomination.
Miss Walker's novel—far from the literary masterpiece it has been hyped into and unable to transcend the two humanly legitimate but artistically burdensome chips on its shoulder, feminism and black militancy—is still much better than the film, for which it wasn't suited. An epistolary novel, it thrives on the intimacy of one-to-one verbal confrontation, something that even maturer hands than Spielberg's could not have transposed onto film. But who would have expected The Color Purple, with its bitter hostility toward male blacks, and whites of either sex, to have the psychology of a Dumbo or Pinocchio, its feminist and lesbian coloration lost in a mise en scène doing its damnedest to look like a cartoon film, and pretty nearly succeeding.
Little Celie's cruel stepfather, after begetting two children on her and selling them to a childless couple on their way to Africa, marries Celie off to a young widower who really wanted her pretty sister, Nettie. The widower, whom Celie dares call only Mister, makes her clean and repair his shambles of a house and look after the wild, hostile children from his previous marriage. For her pains, he beats her and cheats on her, notably with the swinging singer Shug Avery, which does not prevent him from trying to rape Nettie, who comes to visit her sister. This unmitigated villain (who, needless to say, ends up getting mitigated in the movie) is frequently shown in a low-angle shot, exactly like the evil giant towering over his small-fry victim in a cartoon. And the perfectly competent cameraman, Allen Daviau (The Falcon and the Snowman), has been made to shoot the film as a series of picture postcards, whether the sisters are gamboling in a meadow whose pullulating flowers appear to have been planted in calculatedly swirling patterns, one by one; or whether Celie is seen reading a letter from Nettie in Africa, with Celie shot in silhouette in a rocking chair against an improbably large window full of purple sky and a huge, orange sun haloing not just her head but her entire body.
Inadvertently, the film even turns racist, for the fulsomely sympathetic Spielberg cannot help patronizing his characters as he oversimplifies and sugarcoats everything, including the violence. Thus Harpo, Mister's eldest, is almost always seen falling off a roof or being flattened by his oversized wife, Sophia; thus all the other men are ravening beasts, whereas a lesbian relationship between Shug and Celie is made to look like a sequence from Bambi. But don't assume that the whites emerge any better; it's just that, not being a minority, they can more easily take the insults.
Credibility is at an all-time low here. Why would Mister hide Nettie's letters to Celie from Africa, rather than simply destroy them? Why would Celie not dare pick up her letters even when Mister is not around to forbid access to the mailbox? Why couldn't she at least enlist the mailman on her side? Why doesn't she answer Nettie's letters after she knows the address and has emancipated herself from Mister? And who is working those huge fields—Mister, by himself? And just who are those small children who hang around the house unchanged, decade after decade? The script is by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes, and might as well have been written in double Dutch.
There are only three surviving performances. Margaret Avery exudes joyous vitality as her namesake, Shug Avery; Oprah Winfrey, a Chicago talkshow hostess, is a good Sophia until she gets overdirected; and Desreta Jackson, as the young Celie, is genuinely touching, because she is unsentimental. When, however, Whoopi Goldberg takes over as the grown Celie, mannerism takes over with her. The actress keeps covering her mouth in heart-melting shame while letting her saucer eyes practically fly out of her face. Her speech, moreover, is New York, 1985—not Georgia, whatever. The combination of souped-up yet sentimental violence and saccharine goody-goodiness makes The Color Purple, like a purple cow, something I would have hoped never to see….
Source: John Simon, Review of The Color Purple, in National Review, Vol. 38, February 14, 1986, pp. 56–59.
Benson, Sheila, “Two Women of Substance in Unlikely Settings: The Color Purple,” in Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1985.
The Color Purple, DVD: Two-Disc Special Edition, Warner Brothers, 2003.
Corliss, Richard, “The Three Faces of Steve: The Color Purple,” in Time, December 23, 1985.
Ebert, Roger, Review of The Color Purple, in Chicago Sun-Times, December 20, 1985.
———, Review of The Color Purple, in Chicago Sun-Times, March 28, 2004.
Halprin, Sara, “The Color Purple: Community of Women,” in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Vol. 31, March 1986, pp. 1, 28.
Jones, Jacqueline, “Fact and Fiction in Alice Walker's The Color Purple,” in Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 4, Winter 1988, pp. 653–69.
Marner, Bruce, Film Production Technique: Creating the Accomplished Image, Cengage, 2008, pp. 10–12, 28–31.
Maslin, Janet, “The Color Purple, from Steven Spiel-berg,” in New York Times, December 18, 1985.
Nowak, Hanna, “Poetry Celebrating Life,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Amistad, 1993, pp. 179–92; originally published in A Salzburg Miscellany: English and American Studies, 1964–1984, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1984.
O'Brien, John, “Alice Walker: An Interview,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, by Amistad, 1993, pp. 326–46; originally published in Interviews with Black Writers, W. W. Norton, 1973.
Patton, Venetria K., and Maureen Honey, Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, Rutgers University Press, 2001, p. xxix.
Santas, Constantine, Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, pp. 57–67.
Walker, Alice, The Color Purple, Harcourt Brace Jova-novich, 1982.
———, “Honoring the Difficult,” in The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, Simon & Schuster, 1997, pp. 21–46.
———, “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,” in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 231–43.
———, “Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave,” in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2009, pp. 183–88.
Wintz, Cary D., Remembering the Harlem Renaissance, Taylor & Francis, 1996, p. viii.
Wintz, Cary D., and Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Vol. 1, Taylor & Francis, 2004, pp. 158–59, 472, 618.
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Knopf, 2000.
Franklin and Moss present a history of African American life in the United States. The authors recount African American history beginning with slavery's origins, exploring the kidnapping of men and women in Africa, and leading up to the civil rights movement of the last half of the twentieth century. The authors have included maps, charts, and many illustrations.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed., Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Amistad Press, 1993.
This book is a collection of reviews and essays that focus on Walker's writing. In the preface, Gates emphasizes Walker's connection to African American women writers of the past, especially Hurston.
Lazo, Caroline, Alice Walker: Freedom Writer, Lerner, 2000.
This biography of Walker is aimed at young students in grades eight and up. The author includes many photographs of Walker. This book is highly complimentary and is not a critical study of Walker.
Sniderman, Paul M., and Thomas Piazza, Black Pride and Black Prejudice, Princeton University Press, 2004.
The authors provide an often provocative look at race relations in the United States. The focus is on how African Americans view themselves and how they perceive that other groups view them. Among the topics covered are black pride and black intolerance and racism.
Walker, Alice, Possessing the Secret Joy, Harcourt Brace, 1992.
Walker wrote this novel as a continuation of the story of Tashi, the young African woman whom Celie's son marries while in Africa. She has no real role in the film, and her role in the novel The Color Purple is very small. Possessing the Secret Joy serves as a protest against a humiliating coming-of-age rite that young African girls are sometimes forced to endure.
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