The Color Purple is, on the surface, very different from other Spielberg films. Upon first glance it’s much more dramatic, even a bit difficult to watch. The story follows a young African American girl, Celie (Whoopie Goldberg), immediately after she gives birth only to have her father take the child away and remind her that she’s a sinner.
Celie’s best friend is her sister, Nettie, but they are soon separated when a man comes by looking for a wife. This man, Albert (Danny Glover), has his sights set on Nettie, but the girls’ father says she’s off limits. He says Celie is available, though, and Albert decides that works for him.
Albert is horrific. He treats Celie more like an indentured servant than anything resembling family. One day Nettie returns for a visit, and for a moment everything is okay in Celie’s world. Then Albert ruins it by trying to force himself on Nettie, and when she hits him and runs away, he tells Celie she’ll never see her sister again.
So the story begins to move quickly through time. Now Celie is an adult, 20+ years later. She’s still with Albert, and everything is more or less the same. Celie’s fear has been replaced with something more reserved, but she still loathes the man she lives with.
This part of the story begins to introduce new characters, including Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) and her temporary husband, Harpo (Willard E. Pugh). Harpo is Albert’s son, and he’s not interested in treating Sofia like a wife, just like his father. But Sofia isn’t as soft-spoken and quiet as Celie. She fights back. While this introduces some comedy into the story, it soon results in her hitting a white man (fairly, after he hit her), but she lands in jail and isn’t able to watch her children grow up. So that levity quickly turns into tragedy.
Another character introduced is Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), a former lover of Albert with whom Celie becomes close. Shug acts as a surrogate Nettie, and in the end she helps Celie escape from under Albert, helping her lead a new life.
The film ends with Albert atoning for his sins, partially, by helping Nettie and her family get the proper immigration forms to return to America from Africa, where they had been living.
It’s a heartwarming ending, and it’s eagerly embraced after all the pain we’ve watched Celie and the others endure throughout the film.
Watching this film felt a little painful at first, on multiple levels. First you have the explicit tortured life that Celie is subject to, and second, it’s a Steven Spielberg film, meaning there are certain expectations going in that are immediately subverted, though ultimately met.
First, Celie’s got it bad. She’s subjected to the might of her father, giving away her newborn child immediately, then she’s subjected to Albert who feels blindly evil without us really getting to understand why (though the movie’s circumstances suggest why he is the way he is). Finally, her severed relationship with Nettie isolates her for years, and her only coping mechanism is to form a solid wall around herself, hiding in her own silence as if hoping she might just disappear.
Second, knowing that this is a Spielberg film makes the movie a little more difficult to stomach because he feels like a hired gun. Whereas E.T. might have been more personal to him, we know he hasn’t lived through anything like what’s presented in the story. Of course, that’s because he’s not a director of color, and who am I to say that it should prevent him from tackling this story? It just felt a bit odd at first, I guess. The film was strong in many ways, but a little too “Hollywood” in others. Because of the subject matter and Spielberg’s attachment to the project, it took me longer to get into the film.
After Annie Hall, Woody Allen made Interiors, a bleak film about pain and nothing else. There was no humor, whatsoever. In fact, the only humor was that he decided to make that film and immediately after his most successful film. With Spielberg, at this point in his career it felt like he wanted to do something different. I’m projecting here, but it felt like he wanted to avoid being typecast as a director of action-adventure films, or big budget, playful films that sell toys centered on their protagonists. So he made a film about a woman of color in the deep south. It’s just so far off from what you might expect him to make.
But then, I don’t know what went on behind the making of this film. I’m sure his journey to the film was more careful than that. Anyways, that’s what I was thinking, but back to the story.
Celie’s counterpoint is Ophrah Winfrey’s Sofia. She is brash, strong, knows what she wants, and she expects cooperation. When her husband, Harpo, demands that she get inside and make him dinner (as his dad would expect), she laughs at him and tells him to get to work. As a viewer, this is the character you want to see in this story. We empathize with Celie, and we hope she will exert some force and fight back, but we know she won’t, at least not yet. So Sofia is like a surrogate through which the viewer and cheer as she mocks the social constructions worth mocking, and she fights back.
In one revealing moment, Harpo asks Celie what to do about not being able to control Sofia. Celie softly mutters that he should hit her, and he does, but she hits back with full force. Sofia finds out about Celie’s advice, and it’s painful to see her confront our quiet protagonist, but it wouldn’t be in her character to back off.
At that point Sofia was the closest thing to a friend Celie had, so it’s odd that she would tell Harpo to hit her. But when she softly told him what to do, it felt more like her wish fulfillment, because it’s what she’d want to do to Albert. Or another way of seeing it, is that she was so conditioned by her own experience (on the receiving end of physical punishment) that she assumed it was the only way to do things.
It seems that Celie learns a lot from observing. First Sofia and Harpo, but then Shug. When Shug arrives in town, she’s moody and quiet. Celie, though, wants to take care of her, and soon they develop a strong bond. Shug is much more outgoing than Celie, even singing seductively at a juke joint started by Harpo.
Whereas Celie is quiet and modest, Shug is loud and unapologetic. Their relationship briefly evolves into romance as Shug helps Celie shake off the dead skin, emerging a new woman.
But this just initiates Celie’s personal growth. More years pass, Shug leaves, Sofia goes to prison, and Celie just gets older. She continues to quietly observe all the goings on, but her gaze feels more powerful, like she can influence something just by looking at it. In other words, she’s not hiding in her silence, but she’s gaining intel, like a spy.
When Shug returns, Celie embraces her whole heartedly. Shug, like Sofia to a lesser extent, is like a voodoo doll so that when she feels something, so does Celie. In that way it’s like E.T. as two people (one alien) become close enough to feel things through each other.
This movie works for multiple reasons, and one of those reasons is all those supporting characters. Like Sofia, Shug has her own story. In one scene later in the film, she is sining at the juke joint, but everyone falls quiet when they hear the singing at the nearby church. At first there is a divide between these two gatherings of people, but Shug leads a small parade to the church, and everyone joins in song. The refrain they keep singing is “God is trying to tell you something.”
Shug approaches the pastor, her father, and she embraces him, and after a few long moments, her face melts into ecstasy when he returns her embrace. We again cut to Celie in the audience as she looks on, the gears in her mind turning. I suppose that the more she watches the community around her heal itself, the more she is ready to help herself.
Ultimately, at a family gathering, Celie stands up to Albert. It’s a moment of insane catharsis, as she says everything we’ve wanted her to say, and in the presence of Shug, Sofia and the rest of the family no less. It’s better because there is that audience. I found myself rooting for her to not just say what she’s been wanting to say, but to embarrass Albert in front of his family, revealing how small he really is. To make things even better, Sofia, her eye permanently swollen and years older from the beating she receive, finally comes back to life. Just as Shug’s journey helped influence Celie, Celie’s revenge tour de force influences and inspires Sofia.
So now that I’m thinking about it, the community is affected by each person’s well-being. There really is a connection between so many of the characters like the more literal connection (telepathic) between Elliot and E.T. Also, that connection helps to use Celie’s personal tragedies to make a broader point about the treatment of African Americans, particularly at that time period (1910-1930s) but also in modern day America.
Celie is basically enslaved by her husband. If you strip away all the titles, names, roles, etc. it feels like enslavement. But that mistreatment hides under socially-accepted roles. So Albert thinks that’s how he should treat his wife just like Harpo thinks that’s how he should treat Sofia. In the cathartic dinner scene, Albert’s father tells his son that he shouldn’t let a woman speak to him like that. So this behavior has all been conditioned.
That’s still what’s going on today (whether today is 1985 when the film was released or 2016 when this is being written). I don’t know everything about the experience of many minority cultures in modern day America, but I know there’s a lot of shit going on, and it’s so often hidden in plain sight, aka polite racism.
So The Color Purple feels like it’s telling us to rethink how we treat people. Sure it might not be as overtly evil as the treatment in this film, but maybe we’re not considering something about the way we conduct our lives, not just towards people of any specific skin color, but towards everyone, because it all affects and infects the community we build for ourselves.
Lastly, the title comes from something Shug tells Celie, about how people overlook the beauty in the world, like the color purple in the flowers. It’s basically saying that there’s beauty hidden everywhere, you just have to let it grow. In other words, like Shug’s father hugging her back, you need to give love to get love.