Revisiting The Color Purple (1985)


Alice Walker’s 1982 novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into this eponymous film, The Color Purple (1985), soon after. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was controversial from the very start, both for the content it brought from the novel and what it left out, and, of course, for the very fact that a white man directed and another white man screenwrote a Black woman’s story. Still, the film showcases powerful performances by Black women who deal with rape and poverty in the deeply racist Jim Crow South of the early 20th century.

The Color Purple (1985)

Like any novel turned into a movie or TV show, things were changed, and this isn’t some dusty classic from a long-dead author, so Alice Walker has had a lot to say about Spielberg’s The Color Purple over the years. She originally wrote a screenplay and was on set for much of the filming, but at the time was battling Lyme disease. A decade later, in 1997, she wrote a memoir of the time that ruminates on her illness, the film-making, and more, titled The Same River Twice. She had to admit that “When I read my script, I see that in some ways it is also different from the book,” and it’s not just the filmed script that was bound to vary from the novel. Walker philosophizes about the film:

“Though The Color Purple is not what many wished, it is more than many hoped, or had seen on a movie screen before. It still moves me after all these years, as I relive the feeling of love that was palpable daily on the set. This does not, however, prevent me from cringing at the same spots in the film that originally seemed bizarre to me.”

One thing that hurt Walker was the complaints when the film premiered that the work denigrated Black men. While the movie version paints the male characters more buffoonishly than the novel, there’s no denying that this is a story about women who are severely abused by men. As Danny Glover, who plays Mister in the film said in the New York Times in 1986: “Lots of times we sweep our own problems under the rug under the justification of upholding Black history and the Black man.”

The Color Purple (1985)

Likewise, Oprah Winfrey, who plays Sofia, said in the LA Times in 1986:

“If this film is going to raise some issues, I’m tired of hearing about what it’s doing to the Black men. Let’s talk about the issues of wife abuse, violence against women, sexual abuse of children in the home. What the book did for me, and what the movie is doing for other women who were sexually abused, is pointing up that you’re not the only one.”

These days, the controversy about the film lies more with how Spielberg downplayed the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, which he admitted was due to his own cowardice. Honestly, it’s something I don’t fault him for too much because just having two women kiss in a mainstream Hollywood film in 1985 was already a Big Deal. I watched a lot of indie films in the ’80s and ’90s and those were the only places you’d LGBTQ themes that weren’t pure camp a la Tootsie (1982) and Victor/Victoria (1982).

The Color Purple (1985)

Of course, I can’t speak about the film from a Black woman’s perspective, so I’ll just quote Racquel Gates, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the College of Staten Island, in Indiewire on the movie’s 35th anniversary earlier this year:

“I think that the appeal of The Color Purple and the reason that it has this long, lasting legacy is because it’s never been about the film unto itself. It’s always been about the relationship between the film and the audience. There is value in what it meant for audiences, how it’s now part of the popular lexicon that we use in our everyday conversations with each other. That’s the thing I’d like to see drawn out, whether in art projects or video installations, or what have you. And so to me, that’s the real legacy of the film, not necessarily the film itself.”

And, being Frock Flicks, we have to talk about the costumes. The movie opens in 1909 and goes until 1936, set mostly in rural Georgia and Memphis, Tennessee. The main action takes place around the 1919-1926 period, based on when Sofia and Harpo marry and how long Sofia is in jail.

Costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers had worked on Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983) and other big-budget Hollywood films before this, but no major historical work. However, she shows amazing attention to detail here and built a world of rich colors and fabrics that express who these characters are. The Color Purple was famously nominated for 11 Oscars and won 0, but one of those was a well-deserved nomination for Best Costume Design

The Color Purple (1985)

From the very beginning, when we see Celie (first played by Desreta Jackson), she’s wearing simple house dresses & aprons, but she still gets color & pattern.

The Color Purple (1985)

This is less a costume shot than set direction / art direction, but it’s also textiles — I love the linens on the laundry lines here. They’re perfectly period & they show how, yes, poor rural people didn’t just have plain, ugly things.

The Color Purple (1985)

Whoopi Goldberg plays adult Celie in the majority of the film. Again, wearing a simple house dress, but the orange check shows she has some spark in there somewhere.

Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple (1985)

Here’s Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) & Harpo’s (Willard E. Pugh) wedding around 1919. Her dress is simple, with a little beading at the neckline.

The Color Purple (1985)

So much color in this scene!

The Color Purple (1985)

Sofia is a bold character, & it shows.

Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple (1985)

Even in this dark scene, there’s a ton of costume details, such as Sofia’s dress appliques & her green coat’s trim.

The red beaded dress worn by Shug (Margaret Avery) got a full deconstruction by TLo because it is pretty iconic.

The Color Purple (1985)

Shug’s dressing gown is a bit more of the period tho.

The Color Purple (1985)

Toward the highpoint of the story, Shug & Grady (Bennet Guillory) show up in fancy clothes. Her aqua sweater dress is gorgeous!


What are your thoughts on The Color Purple?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

7 Responses

  1. Colleen

    I love this movie. I watched it with my sister, who was surprised I had never seen it. I even bought the book. Sure, there are differences, but this movie is wonderful at showcasing how terrible women are treated (even today). Why is so horrible to pick on the men in this movie? Mister is a terrible man who forced Celie from her sister because he wanted to have sex with her, Harpo can’t think for himself, and Celie’s “father” is just terrible in a whole bunch of ways.

  2. Lily Lotus Rose

    This movie is so powerful. I agree with the professor who said that much of the movie’s legacy lies with the impact it’s had on audiences over the years more so than the film itself. And I agree with you about the lesbian kiss in 1985–that was sensational. The movie is atmospheric and deeply moving and it still holds up all these years later.

  3. Channa Wasserman

    The movie holds up amazingly. Alice Walker hasn’t…her blatant anti-semitism is incredibly saddening.

    • Kate

      I had to google this, and yeah. Yikes. That’s awful that such a great mind has succumbed to something like that. We live in a very confusing time where a lot of people seem to have decided that facts are optional and just subscribe to the most insane conspiracy theories, many of which involve hate against various groups.

  4. phlegmfatale

    TCP is a superb film. I’m sorry if dudes feel they’re given short shrift here, but it’s not their story, and they can console themselves with most of the rest of filmdom that is dude-centric. This is about women surviving and getting through despite the difficulties of playing the hands they were dealt in life. Whoopi deserved the Oscar, though I think the elderly lady who won instead was superb in her own film. Whoopi was riveting and the journey of her characterization is astonishing and inspiring. The costumes were gorgeous. It’s baffling to consider this outstanding film and the fact that it was widely celebrated and yet was frozen out from winning Academy awards. Still, 11 nominations says a lot in itself. As for staying true to the book, it can be difficult to condense the essence of a novel into the narrow confines of a 2 or 3 hour film. I think Spielberg et al did a fantastic job of bringing Celie’s world to life, and I feel it should be watched by everyone.

  5. john

    Aggie Guerard Rodgers stated in an interview that she referenced Sears and Roebuck catalogues in her research as many people at that time would order their clothes.

  6. Asheley McDonald

    The picture above that is captioned “Sophia is a bold character and it shows” does not depict Sophia. Just a heads up.