Steven Spielberg called The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s novel, his first “serious” film and without first directing this films like Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List would not have been possible. But he nearly turned down the opportunity, saying that he didn’t know enough about the deep south and that an African-American would be a better choice of director. Though the film focuses on the struggles of black women in the south, the issues can touch all people, regardless of color or gender.
When we first meet teenage Celie (Desreta Jackson) she is pregnant with her second child, fathered by her father. They were both taken away from her and kept secret. Her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), is younger, prettier and catches the eye of a local widower, Albert (Danny Glover). He asks to marry Nettie and is given Celie instead, but gladly lets Nettie stay with them when her father becomes too much. The abusive home becomes bearable for Celie with her sister there to help her and teach her to read, but Albert violently throws Nettie out after she doesn’t submit to his advances. Celie is more beat down than ever and simply survives under her husband’s rule, with no contact with her sister.
Years go by, Celie is now played by Whoopi Goldberg and the children she raised in her teens are now grown. Eldest son Harpo (Willard E. Pugh) knocks up and marries Sophia (Oprah Winfrey in her fat days), who is one of the first strong women we meet. She’s bold, dares to talk back and clearly does not take any shit from Harpo, but one day her bold attitude is going to get her in real trouble.
Albert starts seeing a singer, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) and one day brings her home. Shug has some sort of hold on Albert, so much that he slaves in the kitchen trying to fix her a beautiful breakfast. We laugh and enjoy the show with Celie as Albert skitters around the kitchen like a confused boy and can’t do a thing right. It’s made obvious many times how much he depends on Celie. When Shug is around, Albert doesn’t beat Celie and even better, Shug becomes a great friend to Celie.
Whoopi Goldberg made a brilliant debut as the meek adult Celie. She’s been beaten down so much her whole life and seems to naturally shrink away at anyone. It’s sad and heartbreaking, but when she’s finally given a friend who builds her up, it’s so wonderful to watch Celie find her own ground and call her own shots. This was Oprah’s first film as well and she can be a real treat to watch. Her role is sort of a mirrored opposite of Celie’s life, and an intriguing subplot in the film. Both actress received Oscar nominations, but the film came home empty handed.
It would be too easy to just slap the race and gender cards on this film. This is not an estrogen fueled Lifetime movie to eat chocolate to, nor is it a Tyler Perry’s stereotypical alienation to the white community. Yes, it is mostly about black women, their issues of abusive husbands, fathers and being the bottom rung of Southern society in the early 1900’s. But people of all colors and genders can identify with Celie, rally to loathe Albert and celebrate the human spirit that moves this story. Because of the wonderful story and eye opening subject matter, I do strongly recommend this film to everyone (use common sense with your kids), however, I do have something else in mind for 1985’s best picture.
“The jail you planned for me is the one you’re gonna rot in.”