The Film, The Color Purple, Both Building Community and Creating Controversy
Black History Month creates opportunities to celebrate black identity and community as well as the different dynamics and intersectionalities that exist in this community. February creates an opportunity to dissect the African American identity and understand the deep-rooted history in slavery, exploitation, and institutionalized racism and sexism that play a significant role in the evolution of this identity throughout history. Exploring these dynamics is essential to expanding inclusion to African Americans who are marginalized due to reinforced notions of misogyny and homophobia in American society, which are utilized to diminish solidarity within communities and perpetuate exclusion and discrimination. Films serve as a phenomenal platform to create visualizations of these diverse experiences and identities that create discourse on issues that exist in society and within communities. Black History month created the opportunity for me to view the film, The Color Purple, which is based on a text published in 1982 by African American, woman writer, Alice Walker. Director Steven Spielberg decided to work with actors Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Rae Dawn Chong, Willard Pugh, and Adolph Caesar to bring this Pulitzer Prize winning text to life, finally coming to theaters in 1985. The Color Purple exposes African American female narratives and identities through Celie Harris’s life of abuse in a sexist and racist society and how her empowering relationships with sister Nettie, friend Shug, and relative Sofia drive her towards self acceptance and independence. This monumental and widely popular film contributes to our understanding of African American History by creating an opportunity to discuss the controversy around its production by a patriarchal capitalist industry.
The Color Purple, follows the journey of Celie Harris during the early 1900s to the mid 1900s in the Georgia as she works to discover her true identity and seek freedom in face of abuse, neglect, and discrimination. Abuse takes on many different forms throughout Celie’s lifetime beginning with the rape by her stepfather, which results in 2 children, the emotionally and physical torment by her husband Albert, and the never ending sexism and racism that she faces in her community. Celie struggles with her identity and self confidence but discovers herself through the relationships she builds with other women in her life. Her sister Nettie, her friend and lover Shug, her step daughter-in-law Sofia are the center relationships that Celie has throughout her life and it is from each woman that she learns love, strength, and sexuality. This journey towards self discovery allows her to look deeper into the woman that she is, fight for herself, and earn her freedom from the abuses that held her captive for so many years. In understanding the complexities of trauma and female unity, it is possible to recognize the significance of these experiences, their center to identities, and how African American women are at the center of their communities through African American history.
In, The Color Purple, patriarchal power was utilized to oppress and silence Celie into a position where she was forced in submission which is a direct reference to the true experiences of many women who were targeted during this time period. Celie was forced to be a home maker, cleaning, cooking, rearing Albert’s children – who were subject to beatings, shame from his affairs, and lack of access to education and her family. Understanding generational trauma and the Jim Crow laws that terrorized African Americans are essential to understanding this era as well as colonization, which altered dynamics between African American men and women and reinforced notions of misogyny and homophobia within this community that did not exist before. These sentiments were beneficial to white patriarchal America because it was capable of creating issues within the community and weakened black women through limited education, independence, and participation in social movements (Bobo 336). Black women are resilient and created organizations that were motivated to provide “‘better homes, better schools, better protection for girls of scant home training, better sanitary conditions, better opportunities for competent young women to gain employment’”(White, Chapter 9, Freedom’s First Generation). These efforts played a significant role in the anti-lynching movement and Jim Crow protests that left significant impacts on their communities, but often women who lived in the rural South struggled to access these support groups that would aid them in discovering their identities, true potential, and freedom. Additionally, the issues of sexuality were often ignored and ostracized because, as emphasized by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), this “behavior perceived to be unladylike might undermine their cause”(White, Chapter 9, Freedom’s First Generation). This environment in the rural South created a situation where Celie lacked access to peers, who would have aided her in gaining education, liberation from abuse, and a support system to heal from trauma. Celie also turns on other women in her community, including the wife of Albert’s son, Harpo, encouraging him to beat Sofia into submission, perpetuating this abuse in other relationships. Although Celie struggled with issues of misogyny, homophobia, abuse, and lack of community, her relationships with other black women eventually brought her self liberation.
The female relationships that guided Celie towards self discovery and her ultimate freedom were with Nettie, Shug, and Sofia. Nettie was Celie’s younger sister, a strong young women who taught her how to read and find happiness in life. The joy that she brings into Celie’s life is moving and Nettie teaches her to read and discover a medium in which she can share her story via letters with God. Eventually Nettie is forced to leave after she refuses Albert’s advances but Celie remains hopeful that they will reunite and clings to the love that Nettie made her feel. Even though her isolation and abuse continue she eventually is introduced to Shug, an old lover of Albert’s. As she nurses Shug back to health, she discovers friendship, female confidence, and sexuality as she grows close to her and they develop an intimate relationship. Celie must learn to love herself to love Shug and she comes to discover her true identity and her self worth, allowing her to find solidarity and support. She continues to flourish as Sofia sets an example for what it means to be a strong black woman that should be treated with respect. Sofia breaks down notions that black women do not need support, but that she should fight for herself. The complex dynamics of these relationships allow Celie to ultimately advocate for herself and be true to herself, she retrieves Nettie’s letters that Albert stole, leave her abusive relationship, and reunites with her sister and children. She proclaims “I’m poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here!”, which is a moving moment where she rejects feelings of invisibility and unworthiness and seeks happiness and respect. She finds her way in the world by supporting herself, building a home for herself and her family on her true father’s land, and maintaining her female relationships for the support that continues to build her up.
This moving film left a monumental impact on society and continues to be a powerful message that makes clear that the stories of black women need to be heard and seen because they too are a part of African American history. Representation is necessary to acknowledge African American history and for many women, this film allowed them to deeply connect with characters and reflect on trauma. Yet, the film faced controversy when it was brought into question by black men for their negative characterization, which represents a disconnect in African American history where the devaluation of the truth of black female experiences are undermined and excluded. This film is important to understanding African American history because it disrupts the tendency to ignore valid experiences of women and perpetuate patriarchy. Understanding the complex gender dynamics throughout African American history is important to recognizing how colonialism created a violent environment for black women, where virginity, submission, child rearing, and domestic skills were valued. This was a way to assimilate African Americans into settler society standards and reduce solidarity and unity within the community and continue exploiting black women. Additionally, controversy developed around the fact that black experiences were being produced by a white patriarchal industry, led by Steven Spielberg. Reflection needs to made on the point that “a significant difference between the novel and the film, one being the world of a black woman, the other a mainstream media product constructed by a white male”(Bobo 332). This point is extremely significant because the experience of receiving this story differs and the story is not only minimized by film but also created through the lens of a white man. This film continues to face criticism in this sense, and therefore it is important to have meaningful discourse on a film that has left a significant impact on society with the issues of its production in mind. This controversy perpetuates discourse today on the portray of African American history and the relevance of sharing the stories of African American women, which is significant to understanding how erasure works in American society and how these stories can be exploited for the economic gain of white patriarchal industries.
Bobo, Jacqueline. “Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple.” Callaloo, no. 39 (1989): 332-42. Accessed April 29, 2020. doi:10.2307/2931568.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.