The Color Purple is a historical drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel of the same name that was written by Alice Walker. Directed by Steven Spielberg and with music by Quincy Jones, the film featured a star-studded cast and was a box office smash that received several Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations. Following Celie’s life over 40-years in rural Georgia, we witness her journey of trying to find herself and a place in the world. The book and movie touched on taboo topics that made people uncomfortable and led to controversy.
The Color Purple starts with an incredibly young girl, Celie, giving birth to a baby. That’s bad enough on its own but it turns out that despite being only 14 years old, this is Celie’s second child. The children are both her offspring and half-siblings as the man she believes to be her father is also the father of her children. As Celie gives birth to these children they are taken away by her father and given to people associated with the church. She is living a rough life but has some comfort in the presence of her younger sister, Nettie. Yet, her love for Nettie is also a source of fear as she notices that their father has begun to inappropriate eye Nettie as well.
So I was pretty much heartbroken within the first few minutes of The Color Purple. But it gets worse.
Following the death of their mother, she hopes that her father will find someone else and remarry. You already know where this is going right? When he does, it’s to a girl around Celie’s age. Now my first thought was feeling sorry for Celie and being disgusted by her father. But I also wondered how on earth the members of the church were ok with this grown man standing at the altar to marry a child.
Around this time, another grown man, and I do mean GROWN man, Mister (Danny Glover), who has three children of his own also begins eyeing Nettie. Unwilling to part with Nettie, Celie’s father offers her to Mister as a wife. Or more accurately, a servant to satisfy his physical needs and take care of his home and raggedy children.
The story is fictional but certainly points to the reality of young girls being married off to older men in the past and even in the present being encouraged to “date” older men as a continued method of securing resources for themselves and their families. This is a subject that is now mostly referred to as something that only happens in other undeveloped countries. But I think people don’t realize that these habits and customs were practiced and accepted here in America and elsewhere until fairly recently. And these practices continue in some form in the present.
It’s heartbreaking when you take into consideration the trials and tribulations that people in the past and the present have to endure simply due to the period, environment, and circumstances that they happened to be born into. Celie is so beaten down by life, used, and abused by the people around her that she can’t see beyond her day-to-day struggle to survive. And lacking that vision or hope for better can’t imagine fighting back or trying to change her circumstances.
There’s a scene where Celie and Nettie are playing hand games that I thought was quite symbolic. Here are these children, and I do mean CHILDREN, being lusted after by grown men. A decent man, a normal man, would view Nettie as nothing more than a child playing. At most he might smile and continue smoking his pipe. But we see how twisted and perverted Mister’s mind is as instead of viewing Nettie as a child playing, he regards her as a potential sexual conquest. Every and any female, regardless of age, is a potential sexual object to his mind.
Celie catches hell from all quarters due to both her gender and her race. As a female, she is at the mercy of the men around her. Instead of being loved and protected by her father she is instead abused and victimized until he passes her off to Mister. As a Black female, and especially during this period she has no reasonable expectation of receiving assistance from outside forces such as the community or the police.
This is shown in three ways, first by the church’s pastor and his wife taking Celie’s children from her father and passing them off as their own but not intervening to stop the abuse that was leading to her pregnancies. Second by the church’s congregation not running Celie’s father out of town when he decided to marry that young girl but instead attending the wedding and the pastor officiating over the ceremony. The third was a glimpse of the racism that Black people in the community are forced to endure in the form of a shop clerk speaking roughly to both the pastor’s wife and Celie. The pastor’s wife is grown and looks like a middle-class lady while Celie is a child. Class doesn’t matter but the shop clerk refers to both the pastor’s wife and Celie as “gal” a tacky term that is derived from “girl”, which the pastor’s wife is certainly many years past being.
People develop at their own pace and Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) needs time to find herself which is understandable given the incredibly rough life she is forced to lead. But even amid all this sorrow, there is hope. And even as we see examples of women who are incredibly abused and disadvantaged, we also see them love and support each other throughout The Color Purple. Excluding Nettie, Celie is surrounded by abusive men and raggedy children for much of her early life. I assume that her mother was ill for some time before finally passing away, leaving Celie and Nettie without much of a female presence in their lives.
One of Mister’s kids is Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), a son who growing up in all this dysfunction idolizes and attempts to mimic his father’s attitude towards women. As a young adult, Harpo meets and falls in love with a spitfire, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), who is a completely different kind of woman. We don’t get her full backstory but learn some things about her past in bits and pieces. Like Celie, her life has also been hard and she’s experienced abuse as well. But she has also experienced the love and protection of women as evidenced by the group of women who protectively surround her as Mister approaches after her wedding to Harpo. She comes to be an example of inner strength, self-confidence, and pride.
Early on I felt for Celie and loved the character of Sofia but then again her strength and confidence are easy to admire. It’s telling that when Harpo appeals to Celie and Mister for advice on his inability to control Sofia that they both advise him to beat Sofia into submission. This leads to an iconic monologue from Sofia and at that moment we see the difference in Sofia and Celie’s philosophies and approaches to life. Celie has learned to tolerate abuse because she’s waiting to die and hoping for a better afterlife. Sofia on the other hand also had to deal with hardships and abuse but has decided to fight for a better life in the here and now. Generally speaking I don’t advocate violence but in Celie’s case, I agreed with Sofia and thought that at the first opportunity she should have slit Mister’s throat with the straight razor. But then that would have cut the movie too short.
I have come to adore Margaret Avery but initially had a love-hate relationship with Shug Avery. I didn’t like her at first. Not so much because Mister brought her into Celie’s home (because who cares about Mister) but rather because she was so mean to Celie for no reason. I don’t understand being mean to someone who cooks your food or takes care of you when you’re sick. You’re taking unnecessary chances with your life because they can spit in your food or leave you to die. Think smart and be nice, you’ll live longer. Yet, within a few scenes, I had come to like Shug’s character.
The Color Purple is kind of like “Love & Basketball” in the sense that there are so many random cameos by Black actors that would go on to appear in other Black films. Blink and you’ll miss Laurence Fishbourne, Big Red, Rae Dawn Chong, etc. I also laughed out loud at the juke joint scene when I realized that a meme that’s been floating around on the internet of musicians packing up when things are about to get hectic came from The Color Purple. There’s also another funny scene where Mister is attempting to make breakfast for Shug while Celie sits watching from a rocking chair. When he gets kerosene or something like that to make a bigger fire, the camera goes back to the rocking chair which is now empty right as the kitchen explodes.
There’s an overall theme throughout The Color Purple of society constantly trying to keep these people down. When anyone has the gall to take some pride in themselves, to seek out some kind of freedom, to be anything more than the limitations that the environment tries to force them to be, it seems like everyone else tries to beat them down. They’re regarded as being uppity or thinking too highly of themselves. To see the transformation of Sofia from being proud and gregarious to a broken shell of a woman with a disfigured eye and limp was like seeing the story of Celie in reverse.
And all because of that damned Ms. Millie.
The thing that especially annoyed me was seeing that Ms. Millie felt good about herself for bringing Sofia to visit her family for the holidays. When the reality is that had she not been a tone-deaf idiot pawing at Sofia’s children, Sofia wouldn’t have been away from her family for all of those years. I secretly hoped Sofia would crash the passenger side of the vehicle into a tree or something and rid the world of Miss Millie’s presence. But there would probably be questions. I promise you that I’m not a violent person but this movie…it made me feel a certain kind of way.
The second shaving scene juxtaposed against Nellie attending the tribal mark scene in Africa was powerful. And it represented the long-awaited transformation of Celie, her finally breaking free of all the things that held her captive. She’d had and lost her sister as a child and in meeting Shug Avery she found someone else who loved her and helped her find herself. All the joy and happiness she had in the world was in the form of her sister and that had been taken away. Shug Avery helped her reconnect with all of that and her true inner self.
A great point is made in pointing out that Mister is a waste because his father, Old Mister Johnson, was a bum and didn’t teach him any better so he in turn didn’t raise Harpo and his other kids properly. This dysfunction goes on until Harpo loses Sofia and his girlfriend Squeak, and he does some soul searching which leads him to change his ways. With time and by doing things differently he’s able to mend his relationship with Sofia. And bearing witness to Harpo’s journey while experiencing losses of his own, Mister realizes the error of his ways and also transforms.
Not to get off track but Old Mister Johnson was a hot mess with that scraggly old man voice and he had no chill. I hope that is not the actor’s real voice because it’s terrible. He sounds like that old man who sings in the church choir that you wish wouldn’t.
I wasn’t born when The Color Purple was released but in researching Alice Walker for a Black History Short, I read about the criticisms that the book and movie received. Some people felt that the negative portrayal of the male characters fed into negative stereotypes about Black men. But I think those people missed the point about the theme of transformation. Sure the female characters experience abuse, some of which occurs at the hands of the Black male characters and they are undoubtedly flawed individuals. Both Harpo and Mister change and grow as characters over the course of the movie.
They’re not simplistic stereotypes. By viewing the three generations of the men in Mister’s family we see how the two younger men turn away from dysfunctional and misogynistic attitudes. Early on we see Mister defend Shug Avery against his father’s negative statements about her past and character. When Mister’s father visits him for the last time, we see Mister usher his father out when he suggests that the solution to his life and home falling apart is to marry another young girl. And by the end of the film, he takes it upon himself to try and right the wrongs he’s done to Celie.
Shug is a bit of a rabble-rouser who lives life to the fullest and is like the opposite of Celie. She has a fire in her belly that pushes her through life while also attracting other people. As an entertainer, she achieves a degree of wealth and freedom that Celie doesn’t have, and Sofia briefly experiences before having it ripped away. Yet she still shares a similar sense of sadness and emptiness to that of Celie and we come to find it’s a result of her lack of a relationship with her estranged father. As a preacher, he has turned his back on Shug because she’s what he considers to be a sinner. He’s less aggressive than the other men but stubbornly rejects Shug’s multiple attempts to reach out and reconnect. Papa Avery tries to fight it but undergoes a transformation of his own and eventually provides Shug with the love and acceptance that she’s so desperately seeking.
Towards the end of The Color Purple, Shug explains her philosophy that the color purple is representative of everything in the world wanting to be recognized, appreciated, and loved. We see this in the different relationships that are shown. Celie wants to feel safe and secure in life after enduring abuse from her stepfather and Mister. Shug wants to be loved and accepted by her father. Sofia wants to live as equals with Harpo.
There is conflict because while the female characters are looking for the freedom to be themselves and loved as they are, the men desire to keep them within the bounds of what they think a woman should be. The men use physical and emotional abuse in their attempts to keep the women in line. Mister beats Celie because she’s not Shug who is the woman he wants but doesn’t want him. He tries to mold Celie into being the woman he thinks he needs by threatening and physically abusing her. Sofia is the woman that Harpo wants but he also desires to control her. Yet, Sofia isn’t a pushover so they fight for dominance until she can’t take it anymore.
I thought the scene at the dinner table was amazing. Sofia was a strong woman with all of the things within her that Celie was lacking in her desire to change her life. But the irony is that while at her lowest sitting in prison, Sofia found strength and faith in seeing that Celie was still alive. That despite everything the world had thrown at Celie she was still finding a way to survive. The human instinct to live and survive is or at least should be the greatest motivator in life and by clinging to that Celie was taking a small step towards finding herself and gaining her freedom.
The first shaving scene showed that despite Celie seeming meek and mild there was also a fire within her that just needed a spark to ignite. There is a theme of sisterhood between the female characters as we see how they support and draw strength from each other. This is juxtaposed against the early relationship between the male characters where Mister’s father is a hot mess who gives him bad advice and perpetuates misogyny. Early on we see some bits of this in the relationship between Mister and Harpo but as the two characters evolve their relationship turns into a sort of brotherhood along the lines of what we see between the female characters. By ridding themselves of these dysfunctional views it frees them to be their true selves and to have a healthier relationship as father and son and also with everyone else.
I’d watched The Color Purple before but I feel as though viewing it this time might have been my first experience watching it from start to end in one sitting. I’d also read the book as a young adult but I still didn’t get the fuss. Yet, it was somehow different this time. I finally got what everyone else seemed to get a long time ago. It truly is an amazing movie that I probably just didn’t get because I was pretty young when I previously attempted to watch the movie. I do plan to re-read the book to see if I’ll feel differently about it now.
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