I watched The Color Purple at a friend’s 12th birthday party. It was the first time that I loved a movie and hated it at the same time. I usually get the itch to watch it in late summer because the film captures that season well, and that’s when the purple cosmos scattered across Celie’s front yard are also in bloom at my house. (Incidentally, it was only later, after cultivating my favorite blossoms for years, that I realized how predominant they are in the film.) Whenever I am hungry to watch it, summer or not, I approach it with as much trepidation as anticipation.
The Color Purple, like many stories that stick in our consciousness, is a story that demands something of you. It demands that you walk away changed. That is perhaps the greatest compliment any story can get, and Purple earns it through mercilessly truthful fiction.
Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel is set up as a series of letters from the main character, Celie (Whoopie Goldberg), to God. These are rendered in voiceover, making the film an excellent example of the transfer of story from one medium to another. The Color Purple is a novel of a film, covering Celie’s childhood to her late adulthood, and tracing the stories of her and the people close to her throughout their lives. The broad novel-like sweep lends a sense of import, of a story larger than time, and of a larger metaphor. Critics have debated both the novel and the film’s place in the pantheon of African American literature, and that debate is healthy. There has also been considerable discussion about Steven Spielberg’s role as director. Can a white guy who makes movies about big sharks and aliens really tell this story?
It’s important to note that Spielberg had a lot of help. The Color Purple isn’t exactly Indiana Jones in approach or style (it’s also the only film directed by Spielberg that does not have a soundtrack composed by John Williams. It was instead beautifully done by Quincy Jones, part of the deal when the director was signed on). It’s almost as if Spielberg was hired to come in and help because his name and credentials would be helpful. There was no significant African American director who would be able to do the same. That in itself is complicated. Why was there no African American director hired? And why was there no African American director with enough clout for the project? The answers to these questions are a significant part of the cultural American discussion that is as relevant today as it has been for the past four hundred years.
Debate aside, to take the story as it is and to understand its significance require little effort. The film launched the career of Oprah Winfrey and secured the dramatic careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.
There are countless striking scenes and moments in the film, crafted with clarity and intensity. The editing of scenes like the one where Celie shaves Mister (after finding out that he has been hiding letters from her sister for years) lend not only emotional suspense, but a sense of cathartic empowering.
That sense comes from the lack of extant storytelling about the struggles of African Americans, women, and the abused. When a person fits all three of those categories in the US, justice is, well, not exactly prominent. Add homosexuality to the mix (downplayed in the film version) and the man (symbolized by Mister’s physical presence and Miss Millie’s awkward fear) is a force almost insurmountable in our society.
And yet, that’s the point of the story. In one of my favorite moments, Celie stands up during a crowded Easter dinner and tells Mister Albert (Glover) exactly what she thinks, what she knows, and what he’s done. When he moves to strike her, as he’s done before, she stands and stops him with one look and gesture. She knows she is loved. She knows her children have a future. And at last, she cannot be defeated by him. The moment is then accented by Sophia (Winfrey) laughing, laughing, laughing and saying “Old Sophia back now.”
The symbolism of the mother’s redemption through her children’s return to Africa is hard to miss. The larger cultural metaphor is what it is, to be discussed regarding race, identity, and American culture for as long as American culture exists. For the purposes of the film, the moment is well earned by plot and character development.
It is those moments; the images, the faces, the colors of the landscape, the sense of season, the complex interplay between people that stick with the viewer. Perhaps it was the mix of things at once so familiar and new to me that had such an impact. I was aware of the need for discussions about race, about crimes to women, about the evils that happen in rural society in ways that had never occurred to me. I knew evil existed. I had never understood how it could have played out in such a familiar setting (farms and churches, removed by time and place from my experience, but so much like the fields and houses I knew).
If romantic comedies “restore our innocence” (I don’t think they do, see my previous post on Sleepless in Seattle and Return to Me), dramas strip us of naivete. The Color Purple is difficult ugly truth, but it is also beautiful empowering redemption. That is perhaps my favorite function in drama. Happy endings may not descend upon us as if sent from a magic wand. But there is satisfaction. There is sacrifice for the next generation. There is peace amid difficult circumstances. The flowers still bloom every spring, and the simple joys should not be ignored. If the message of the film is true, grace endures in them. God must get mad when people pass by the color purple and overlook it. There are countless beautiful simple things around us that are deserving our care and attention.
They are fragile, but endure. And their stories change us.