By: Tena Nguyen and Emily Pfahl
In 1982, Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple, which may be one of the most illustrious novels about slave relations during the early 1900s. Specifically, Walker’s novel illustrates how sexism and subordination widened the fissure between African American men and women after the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1985, Steven Spielberg, an American director known at the time for his films Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, turned Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, into a Golden Globe-winning masterpiece. The Color Purple is centered around an African American woman, Celie, who is forced into an abusive marriage with an African American man, Mister. Mister, with his sexist demeanor, keeps Celie subservient, treating her as he himself would have been treated before 1863—that is, as a slave. While suffering decades of abuse at the hands of her husband, and being told who she is (and who she can’t be), Celie struggles to find her identity in a society where African American women are unceasingly objectified and constrained. Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple unfolds a story that is not as simple as black and white; it is about growth, independence, triumph, and the feminism African American women displayed in the face of sexism and oppression. By discovering that her skin color and gender do not define her and by following the lead of strong feminists in her vicinity, Celie illustrates that African American women, though unjustly treated, can break from the gender and racial roles society has imposed on them.
Historical and Cultural Context
Alice Walker’s inspiration for her novel came from her personal experiences. Even though The Color Purple is a fictional novel, events and characters are loosely based on what Walker knows about her ancestry. For example, Walker recounts that her grandmother was murdered by a man who “wanted to be her lover,” which insinuates the love was unrequited. This is akin to Mister relentlessly beating and disparaging Celie because he feels insecure (Huffington Post 2013). Walker ultimately saw The Color Purple as a way to connect with her ancestors. Another source of inspiration for The Color Purple blossomed when Walker joined the Civil Rights Movement and spoke with sharecroppers facing eviction. She “found that the lives of the people she knew and loved, like her mother, weren’t being told,” and wanted to create a piece of literature that told the often overlooked stories of African American sexism and suffering (Huffington Post 2013). Such a raw narrative entailing the lives and relationships of African Americans during the early 1900s earned Walker’s The Color Purple a Pulitzer Prize, making her the first African American woman to earn the award. It’s fitting that this was the first novel written by an African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, because one of the novel’s most prominent themes is powerful African American women discovering their identities and individualism. Steven Spielberg wanted to bring Walker’s story to the big screen because his previous films (Indiana Jones, Jaws) were not indicative of the reputation he wanted to hold; Spielberg wanted to demonstrate to the film industry that he could produce more “serious” movies as well.
Walker created African American characters who fit the archetypes of the time: Celie and Mister are poor farmers who are unable to leave the South that enslaved their ancestors. In addition, the legal status of African Americans was worsening, and African Americans were still seen as the “inferior race.”Harsh restrictions were imposed on African Americans who did not fit society’s expectations of the docile, malleable slaves the world had previously seen. In The Color Purple, Sophia, a strong black woman, was imprisoned for hitting a white man—she had refused to be his wife’s maid—and when she was released, she was nevertheless forced to be the woman’s maid. Thus, even after African American women were freed in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, they were still forced into slave-like conditions. This is a reoccuring theme in The Color Purple: African American women were not truly “freed” in 1861. Slavery, racism, and sexism banded in the early 1900s to hold African American women in subordination.
It was also during this time, however, that black women were becoming outspoken about the sexism trapping them in subservience to their husbands, and began demanding equal rights. In 1920, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment, which secured voting rights for women (Gertner & Hariot). At this time, however, African Americans (especially African American women) were not given the same freedoms. All African American women were not granted the right to vote until 1965 as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (U.S. Department of Justice). Beginning in the 1920s and continuing until the Voting Rights Act, African Americans campaigned for equal protection and rights under the law, and African American women began seeking new freedoms and ways to express their individualities. This is one of the most prominent themes in The Color Purple, as Celie models strong, independent women by experimenting with her own identity. In the 1980s, when the film and book were released, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Walker attributed some of her inspiration for writing The Color Purple to her experiences with the Civil Rights Movement, which offers insight into why she published the novel in 1982.
Themes and Style
Throughout the film The Color Purple, Spielberg addresses the controversial issue of female empowerment at the face of adversity and the idea of self-actualization. The film illustrates the story of Celie, an African American woman, who is the subject of sexual abuse first at the hands of her father, and later at the hands of her husband, Albert. Spielberg carefully demonstrates the role of domestic violence in Albert and Celie’s relationship: Albert verbally and physically abuses Celie on a regular basis. It is clear that Albert does not treat Celie like his wife, but rather as his slave. Spielberg reinforces this idea with the intense scene in which Celie is shaving Albert’s face, and he tells her that he will kill her if she cuts him. This line is reminiscent of the dialect between an 1860s slave-owner and his slave, indicating that the underlying ideas of slavery are far from being extinguished from society. Instead of speaking to her like an equal partner in their marriage, Albert always speaks to Celie in an authoritative manner, as if he owns her; this is similar to how a white slave owner would bark orders at his slaves in the 1800s.
Celie’s entire life has consisted of men repeatedly berating and oppressing her. Therefore, she advises Harpo, her step-son, to beat his strong-minded wife, Sophia, when he finds it hard to control her. However, the physical altercation between Sophia and Harpo leaves Harpo with a swollen black eye and Sophia enraged. Spielberg uses zoomed-in shots throughout the film to place emphasis on a character during critical thematic scenes, and this is utilized when Sophia angrily confronts Celie for telling Harpo to beat her. Sophia roars, “All my life I had to fight…A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” (The Color Purple). Moreover, the zoomed-in shots allow the audience to see the fire in Sophia’s eyes as well as her infuriated expression, which directly contrasts with the zoomed-in shot of Celie’s frightened expression. These two characters’ zoom-in shots during this pivotal scene establishes the foil-nature between Celie and Sophia because Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie is timid and weak where Oprah Winfrey’s Sophia is strong and independent. The juxtaposition of these two women allow the audience to witness how Sophia’s strong-willed nature influences Celie in her personal growth.
Figure 2: The Color Purple. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performance by Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, Warners Bros., 18 Dec.1986. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnSbUuCEvrQ.
In accordance with the themes of independence and identity of African American women, Celie does not remain a weak, subordinate character throughout the entire film. Celie’s personal growth and discovery begins after the appearance of Shug Avery, a famous African American female blues singer and Albert’s mistress. An unlikely friendship sparks between the two women as Celie begins to show her spunkier side through her small sly smiles, quick winks, and occasional scenes of strength (such as when she shares a kiss with Shug). In another scene, Celie amusedly smiles at Albert as he attempts to cook for Shug in the kitchen for the first time. This scene marks the beginning of Celie’s transition from a timid, subdued character to a strong, confident woman. In Malcolm X’s “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself” speech, he asked the African American women community why they hate the parts of themselves that make them special (Genius). Similarly, the Celie at the beginning of the film did not love herself. She conformed herself to meet the expectations placed on her by her “superiors”.
Celie is shaped into a new woman through her relationships with the strong, independent African American women around her. By the end of the film, Celie has completely evolved into an empowered African American woman; she is no longer a shadow of herself. The final stage of Celie’s metamorphosis is when Celie confronts Albert, and she tells him, in a reverse-shot scene, that he is “a low down dirty dog.. [that] it is time for me to get away from you and into creation, and your dead body would be just the welcome mat I need” (The Color Purple). A reverse-shot is a filming technique where one character is looking at a second character, who is off-screen, and then the second character is shot looking at the first character. Spielberg’s use of the reverse-shot technique in this scene demonstrates that it’s possible for African American women to break from gender roles in order to discover their power and identities, as the camera angles essentially establish Celie as Albert’s equal.
This film presents another untold narrative of the modern day African American woman. Misogynoir, a modern term that describes the ancient ritual of bias against black women, highlights that the black sexism present in the film is still prominent today. Moreover, it demonstrates that slavery was not completely eradicated from society. Clearly, remnants of the institution still survive and are represented via the mistreatment of African American women. African American female slaves were previously mistreated and oppressed by their white owners, but now, their stories have changed. African American women are now at the mercy of prominent African American men in their lives. These women’s stories, which are depicted in Spielberg’s film The Color Purple, serve as evidence that Malcolm X was right: “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in American is the black woman” (Genius).
The film The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, is an adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel of the same name. As is the same with all directors, Spielberg made discretional creative decisions that caused the film to deviate from the novel’s plot line. For instance, McMullen and Solomon, professors at Pennsylvania State University and University of Maryland, respectively, explore the repercussions of Spielberg’s decision to transition from the novel’s epistolary format to a narrative format in the film. According to McMullen and Solomon, due to Spielberg’s creative discretion, the audience receives a story about Celie’s financial success instead of a story about her personal growth. This is because the film emphasizes the notion of African American female empowerment, which is largely present in the novel (163). In turn, the film conforms Celie’s story to the American dream (163). Likewise, Maslin states that the film adaptation has painted the story in a much warmer and positive light, in comparison to Walker’s original novel. Maslin claims the realism and grit present in the original novel has been lost in translation on the big screen; instead of conveying the blunt tale set in bleak rural Georgia, as told by Alice Walker in her book, Spielberg transformed The Color Purple into an optimistic, family-oriented narrative in a seamless “storybook style” format, which is present in the first scene of the movie, which depicts Celie and Nettie playfully running together in a field of wildflowers (Maslin).
Another theme that was largely explored in the film was the overcoming of sexism. For instance, Victoria Bond claims that the The Color Purple is a rejection of the ideology behind respectability politics, which is when a marginalized group tries to align its values with mainstream values. Bond states that the film raised to popular acclaim for its portrayal of African American women’s dismissal towards respectability politics, a notion that confines them as individuals and as a group. This idea also demands that African American women refrain from behavior that would “disgrace” the collective group’s reputation (Bond). This is seen in the film with of Celie’s exploration of sexuality and the attraction she feels toward Shug Avery. Furthermore, Sedehi, Talif, Yahya, and Kaur claim that “black women are like white and black men’s slaves,” but they also express the idea that the film focuses principally on a black woman’s growth from a submissive nature to an independent spirit. This is epitomized by Celie, who overcomes her oppressive past and leaves her abusive husband, breaking the cycle that so many African American women face today.
The film faced both opposition and controversy from the African American community at the time of its premiere. For instance, the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, formed by African Americans that advocated against the production of black exploitation in films, led a protest at the The Color Purple’s 1985 LA premiere for its negative portrayal of black men (Bond). The majority of black men have expressed with conviction that the film and the novel purposefully paint African American men in a negative light and distort their histories (Shipp). Many also believe that the film blames victims of racial prejudice for numerous social problems such as teenage pregnancy and impoverished broken homes (Shipp). On the other hand, many black women have defended the premise of the film The Color Purple by claiming that Celie’s story is their own or that it is the story of other women they know (Shipp). Furthermore, Shipp references Eartis Thomas, who claims there were an abundance of “Celies” in her hometown of Sunflower County, Mississippi that were abused by their husbands.
All in all, Spielberg’s movie adaptation of Walker’s The Color Purple has received a mix of praise and criticism over the years for the cast’s strong performance in the film as well as the film’s deviance from the original novel. In addition, the film has garnered both public backlash by the male African American community for its negative portrayal of black men and acceptance from the female African American community for its honest retelling of a story that they hold so close to heart.
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Bond, Victoria. “’The Color Purple’ Is a Cultural Touchstone for Black Female Self-Love.” New Republic, 17 Mar. 2015, newrepublic.com/article/121311/color-purple-has-remained-cultural-touchstone-black-women.E.
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McMullen, Wayne J., and Martha Solomon. “The Politics of Adaptation: Steven Spielberg’s Appropriation of the Color Purple.” Text & Performance Quarterly 14.2 (1994): 158. Print.
Shipp and Special To the New York Times. “BLACKS IN HEATED DEBATE OVER ‘THE COLOR PURPLE’.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Jan. 1986, www.nytimes.com/1986/01/27/us/blacks-in-heated-debate-over-the-color-purple.html.
Sedehi, Kamelia, et al. “The Color Purple and Women’s Time.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research , vol. 5, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1328–1333.
The Color Purple. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performances by Whoopie Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery, Warner Bros., 1985.
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Humphrey, Claudia. “Movies You Missed: ‘The Color Purple’.” Audio blog post. Weekend Edition Saturday. National Public Radio, 7 Oct. 2017. Web. 8 April 2018, https://www.npr.org/2017/10/07/556320347/movies-you-missed-the-color-purple.
“‘Misogynoir Is a Very Real Problem and Feminism Can No Longer Ignore It.’” Stylist, Stylist, 26 Oct. 2017, www.stylist.co.uk/people/feminism/feminists-must-accept-this-fact-and-be-willing-to-speak-out-racism-black-women-of-colour-equality-sexism-feminism-serena-williams-misogynoir/10383.
“The Color Purple: Alice Walker on Her Classic Novel, Spielberg’s Film, and the Broadway Adaptation.” Youtube, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 25 June 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uALf_v0zxgE.
Alice Walker,Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple, Sexism, Film adaptation, Misogynoir, Female Empowerment, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Gender inequality, African American Women