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.
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.”
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).
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
What are your thoughts on The Color Purple?