'The Color Purple': A cinematic tapestry of women's resilience, redemption
  • Release Date: 14/12/1985
  • Cast: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey
  • Director: Steven Spielberg 

The Color Purple‘ is based on the epistolary book of the same name by Alice Walker, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982. I had heard about the book and the film numerous times over the years but never felt the urge to watch it. It was only this week that I sparked off a discussion about it with a friend who drew my attention to it, as she was writing a comparative piece about it for one of her papers at the University. After ’12 Years a Slave,’ I had no intention of watching another gut-wrenching portrayal of the pure evil that was meted out to the African-American community. It took me a while to digest all that I had seen in ’12 Years a Slave,’ and no matter how great a film it was, it left an extremely bad taste in my mouth.

Similarities and differences with ’12 Years A Slave’:

‘The Color Purple’ was in many ways similar to ’12 Years a Slave’ but was even more unnerving and hard to digest as it not only documented the unimaginable horrors that were subjected to a marginalized section of people but, in this case, were women. The film also differed from ’12 Years a Slave’ in who the perpetrators were, unleashing horrifying brutalities on the women in question. While ’12 Years a Slave’ willfully documented what the White Man was doing to the African-American, ‘The Color Purple’ shows us the extent to which African-American men went to subjugate and torture their own women, unleashing unthinkable evil that would, in years, erode the very essence of life and personality from these women, leaving them as mere living, breathing shells of who they were destined to be.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present its inaugural Governors Awards Film Series, featuring screenings of “The Exorcist,” “The Color Purple,” and “The Great White Hope,” from Wednesday, November 9, to Friday, November 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Pictured: Willard Pugh and Oprah Winfrey in THE COLOR PURPLE, 1985.

The story: 

‘The Color Purple’ chronicles the journey of Celie (Desreta Jackson), who is labelled ugly and spoiled by her own father while presenting her for marriage to a man 3 times her age. He fathered two children with her, who were then taken away and, in all possibilities, sold off to rich buyers. The only solace Celie has in her life is her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). The two share a tender bond and understand the world of men all too well. They not only safeguard each other against the advances of men but also occasionally make fun of them when they are in their private space. The bonding between the sisters is cut short when Celie is married off by her father to Albert (Danny Glover), who had his eyes on Nettie but had to be content with Celie to take care of his children and do his domestic chores, as his wife was no more, and because Celie’s father now had his eyes set on Nettie and was not willing to part ways with her after their mother’s death.

As Celie learns to cope with the abusive domestic life at Albert’s house, nurturing and bringing up children who were almost as old as her, she gets a ray of hope. Nettie, who was being targeted by their father, escapes and requests to live at Albert’s, who agrees for his own sinister reasons. As the two sisters once again find solace in each other’s company, Albert’s sexual advances towards Nettie start creating situations that would ultimately result in Nettie physically resisting Albert and hurting him where it hurts. Albert brutally throws Nettie out of the household and sadistically condemns Celie to a life of misery and loneliness forever. Nettie leaves but with a promise to never be separated from her sister except by death. Nettie had taught Celie to read so that the two could be in touch through letters, but Albert takes control of the postbox. While Celie hopes that Nettie writes to her often, she is unable to ever lay her hands on the letterbox. 

She continues with her life and grows into an aware but awkward woman (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who sees and experiences everything around her. Shaped by years of systematic abuse, she is no longer afraid of the abuse and has learned to live with it. It also helps that her perpetrators have weakened over the years, and she can now predict their moves and actions, as depicted in a wonderfully envisioned scene where we see Celie help Albert get dressed for a woman that he covets. Soon a time comes when Celie finally rediscovers her love and bond for Nettie through her letters, igniting in her a fire that not only takes her to places she didn’t know existed but also defines her life and ultimately leads her to that elusive destination of peace and bliss that she dreamed of ever since she was a child. 

A surprisingly inspiring and uplifting culmination:

‘The Color Purple’ would have been an almost unwatchable film for me had it not been for its unexpectedly uplifting and inspiring culmination. I haven’t read the book and hence will not be able to comment on whether it was the author of the book or the director of the film (Steven Spielberg) who conjured that overtly enjoyable culmination to an otherwise morose and heartbreaking story. Whoever it was did what was not only a saving grace for audiences like me who desperately look for hope and optimism but also provided a ray of hope for all those people who might still find themselves incarcerated and tormented by similar predicaments. It was also the best culmination that one could have foreseen for a story that was so laced with one-sided annihilation of the spirit and essence of a group of women, many of whom didn’t even try to be independent or willful.

A study of the state of women through three distinctly different personas:

That brings me to one of the most important aspects of the film that I noticed. I might be completely wrong in my study of this aspect of the film, but as the saying goes, cinema is a subjective art, and what made sense and had meaning for me might mean something totally different for others. The film, through three different women, depicts the sorry state of women during its period and heartbreakingly documents that no matter what the women did, they invariably ended up with the same fate.

Celie, from her childhood, gave in to whatever the men in her life decided for her, resulting in her enduring some of the vilest and most inhuman punishments that women could be subjected to. It was her father in the beginning, and then her husband, Albert, who literally lived her life for her. Her fate was sealed from the moment she was born, and she couldn’t do anything about it, probably because she was too weak to take any action until the very end.

Sophia (played by the delightful Oprah Winfrey) is the stark opposite. She is not afraid of hitting back at her husband when he hits her, even if that husband is the one, she loved and got married to after fighting a long battle with her father-in-law, Albert. She lives her life on her own terms, and when one day the mayor of the town hits her in full public view, she is not afraid to hit him back. This sense of independence and pride, enshrined in her life and character from the beginning, should have kept her on a pedestal of happiness and peace, above people like Celie. On the contrary, it was instrumental in bringing her down and damning her to a life of incarceration and humiliation that only ended when she finally surrendered her willful spirit and agreed to become the slave that was the preordained place of her people in society. While for Celie, her lack of strength and ability to face the world and give it back proved detrimental to her life and happiness, the presence of these same aspects in the life of Sophia led to her incarceration and eventual submission to slavery—a life that was anything but hers.

Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), for a long time in the film, felt like a character who had struck the perfect balance between independence and control. She seemed like someone in control of her life and had plenty. She could actually abuse men, thanks to her iconic status and her perpetual control over at least one man. However, as the story progresses, we see her longing for recognition from the only person she actually cares about. It is not until the very end of the film that she receives it after much wear and tear. The exhausting journey that she has to take leading to the recognition and love that she so desperately craved, in addition to all that she was able to achieve in her life, not only takes its toll on her physically and mentally but also, in many ways, sours the experience and belittles its value to a great extent. While the director doesn’t emphasize this aspect of the character, it was something that came to me through the screenplay, expressions, and mannerisms of the character, leading up to the moment when love and life embrace her one final time in the film.

The performances make the characters real and special:

Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, and the rest of the ensemble cast turn in performances of a lifetime under the astute direction of Steven Spielberg. He is not only a master at extracting the perfect performances from his actors but is also a genius at designing, mounting, and executing ordinary situations and scenes in a manner that transforms them into dynamic and dramatic pieces of art. These pieces can then be viewed and discussed in different contexts for both literary and cinematic reasons.

I was particularly bowled over by Oprah Winfrey, whose character had the most profound arc throughout the film and, in many ways, the most heartbreaking story and experience. It wasn’t easy for Winfrey to engulf the audience in the many facets of her character through nothing but her change of approach, expressions, and mannerisms throughout the film. One scene, in particular, that left a lasting impression on me was where she faced Celie about the latter’s advice to her stepson, Harpo (Sophia’s husband) to beat Sophia in order to keep her in control. This scene said everything we needed to know about her character and what she felt about herself and the world.

Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg astoundingly play off each other, complementing each other so wonderfully that I cannot imagine the film with any other actor playing the characters. Glover is a genius when it comes to manipulating the audience’s feelings about his character. He demonstrates his prowess in coaxing the audience into loving and hating his character, depending on the scene and the portion of the story.

Whoopi Goldberg could have so easily gone overboard with the character of Celie and her oddball mannerisms, but she stays rooted in realism and brings out the nuances of the character in a nuanced and subtle manner. It is hard not to take her every move seriously and bask in the glory of the unbridled emotions and plethora of different feelings that she brings to the table. She is the heart and soul of the film. The trials and tribulations of her character are made real by the amount of heart and, probably, real-life knowledge or experience of what it meant to be a black woman in the timeframe of the story.

Finding comedy in misery: 

‘The Color Purple’ is tragically funny throughout its screenplay. There were many moments when the narrative was comic but never forgot the harsh realities of the women. Somehow, tailoring in their tortures and making them spell out their actions in a lighthearted manner occasionally made it funny, but even more tragic. Humans reach a state of seeing comedy in tragedy when everything is out of their control, and most importantly, the quantum of grief and tragedy becomes so overwhelming that we start experiencing a sense of comedy in the tragedy. That is something that is depicted here through the misery of the women who learn to look at it as comedy in certain moments and are not afraid to express the same with each other. This dark humour is elevated in certain sequences by the juxtaposition of the imagery and drama that is unfolding, and for that, one must credit Spielberg, who had the unique cinematic medium to pull it off in a way that was impossible to do through the pages of a book.

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Final words:

‘The Color Purple’ stands as a cinematic masterpiece that delves into the intricacies of human resilience amidst profound adversity. The ensemble cast, led by the remarkable performances of Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg, breathes life into characters whose stories resonate with both tragedy and humour. The film skillfully navigates through the harsh realities faced by women in a bygone era, capturing moments of poignant comedy amidst their struggles. Spielberg’s directorial finesse shines, using the visual medium to enhance the narrative in ways unique to cinema. The tragicomic nature of the screenplay, coupled with the impeccable portrayal of characters, creates a lasting impact that lingers in the minds of the audience. As the film unfolds, the journey of the protagonists becomes a powerful exploration of human endurance, the quest for identity, and the pursuit of hope against all odds. ‘The Color Purple’ transcends its historical context, leaving an indelible mark on the viewer’s soul and serving as a testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit. It is not merely a film; it is a profound and moving tapestry that weaves together the threads of suffering, resilience, and the pursuit of joy in the face of adversity.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

The views expressed in this article are that of the reviewer and do not reflect EastMojo’s position.

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