‘The Color Purple’ Revisited: Why Spielberg’s Movie Is Still Problematic and Meaningful to Many Black Women

Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. The film remains a cultural touchstone for African American women, due in large part to its depiction of female relationships as a form of sanctuary, in a patriarchal world filled with violence. When it was released, it shattered the widespread cultural resistance to talking openly about domestic abuse.

“The Color Purple” draws from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, which spans 40 years in the turbulent life of Celie, a young black woman in the early 20th-century American South. The film chronicles her abuse at the hands of her stepfather and equally cruel husband, her struggles with poverty, racism, and sexual savagery, and her perseverance as she forges intimate relationships with other women. And despite controversy around its depictions of the black family, especially black men, and criticism that Spielberg turned Walker’s complex novel into simplified broad entertainment, “The Color Purple” continues to reverberate within the black community, and is still frequently referenced today.

To explore this complicated legacy, IndieWire moderated a discussion with seven African American woman scholars and creatives: Terri Francis, who teaches courses in film and directs the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University; Tanya Steele, an award-winning director and screenwriter; Kristen J. Warner, Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama; Samantha N. Sheppard, Assistant Professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University; Jessica Lynne, a writer and art critic and founding editor of ARTS.BLACK; Racquel Gates, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY; and Miriam J. Petty, Associate Professor, Department of Radio/Television/Film Northwestern University.

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The conversation spanned a range of topics, including Tyler Perry’s role in helping to keep the film’s legacy alive, why it continues to resonate among African American women, and how to parse the controversy as it has evolved through the years. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

INDIEWIRE: When “The Color Purple” was released, Tony Brown called it a Nazi conspiracy — the most racist depiction of black men since “The Birth of a Nation.” Courtland Milloy said, “I got tired, a long time ago, of white men publishing books by Black women about how screwed up Black men are.” We were all rather young back then, so we maybe weren’t able to parse these reactions. But what do you all think of them now?

RACQUEL: I do wonder how much it was a response to a dearth of black male representation in the early-to-mid eighties. I also do think some of that was just straight-up sexism about the text, authored by a black woman in the ways that perhaps her own personal biography as a black woman once married to a white man starts filtering into what critics read as her intentions.

MIRIAM: There’s no question that there is a way that straight up sexism and misogyny were a big part of what colored the specifically black male response. And I think it’s helpful to put it into context the period, when there was a kind of hyper-visibility of black women’s voices, in contrast to the usual invisibility, that was led and bodied forth by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and others. And there is a way in which those voices were engendering a lot of pushback, resistance and anger from a lot of black men.

The response from black women was mixed, wasn’t it? While the film seemed to resonate more with black women, there was a faction who were critical of it.

KRISTEN: No one actually interviewed black women back then to get their thoughts on the film. Except for the “I’m trying to protect the black man” women. But Jackie Bobo dedicated a chapter to this [in her 1995 book “Black Women as Cultural Readers”], where she held focus groups with black women, asking them questions about what they thought of the movie. Some sample questions were: what did you get out of the movie? Did you feel like you were being manipulated? Etc. And it was overwhelmingly the opposite to what black men thought of the film. So what was so important was that she gave black women the opportunity to express their thoughts on the movie in a space that nobody else had. She helped stretch the conversation around the film, giving us insight into how complex and diverse in thought black women are.

I’ve never really given much consideration to the idea that the work of Tyler Perry is helping to keep “The Color Purple’s” legacy alive, until Miriam brought it up.

MIRIAM: Perry is keeping it alive for me in ways that honestly don’t require me to watch it, as he recycles and upcycles characteristics of the film, and connects to generations, that wouldn’t necessarily have been thinking about it. There are so many things to say about that, and so that’s the reason it continues to be really legible for me in lots of interesting and important ways.

RACQUEL: I think it’s also important to think of it as a genre film, like a melodrama, and there’s something about high melodrama that connects with black audiences. That’s partly why you see it resonating in the Tyler Perry universe.

SAMANTHA: It has become inflected into various other cultural arenas because of the work of Tyler Perry, and because of the memification as well, but particularly because of the ways in which the cultural figure of Madea is linked to the powerful cultural figure of Oprah Winfrey, who played Sophia. When they made OWN into a network and he brought his work there, what did they do to introduce it? They created this video in which Madea meets Sofia and there’s a conversation between these two characters. So, the resonance is well beyond the text, but of course always retracts back to the text.

TANYA: There’s a dearth of images that address the African American woman’s experience on an emotional level. And so I think that’s what it is with Tyler Perry, and that’s what it is with “The Color Purple.” We get some of our journey through these documents, we get some sort of emotional validation from them. But as a content creator, the execution is paramount. And I don’t think “The Color Purple” is very well executed.

RAQUEL: But it’s impossible to divorce “The Color Purple” from the experience of viewing “The Color Purple.” Thinking especially about the labor of the black audience, because the stuff that reverberates with them, is not the Spielberg stuff. Like the racist idea of Harpo as a bumbling buffoon, that’s not a thing that sticks with black audiences. That’s the work that black audiences have edited out. In the stuff that we circulate and that reverberate, it’s the gems, the “black moments,” regardless of how we feel about them. In Tyler Perry’s work, it’s the stuff that connected initially.

And when you say “the black moments” in the film, what exactly do you mean?

RACQUEL: The blackness that we appreciate comes in the performances. The characters. The blackness is in the aspects of Alice Walker’s novel that could not be completely scrubbed out of the film, even if Spielberg tried. The blackness is in the labor that black women audiences do to sort of reimport that black feminine perspective. lt gets read back into the text.

SAMANTHA: Spielberg wanted to take this on as a career deviation, as a way to legitimize himself as a certain kind of director, a director with range. It’s a really interesting kind of work because he wants to suffuse a kind of colorblindness, of color muteness, so there’s a universality to it that says, “This is for all of us.” He is trying to make it culturally legible, just not for black audiences. The acting labor adds lovely ripples to this very flaccid lake, and Spielberg is just like, “Water is wet.” And so it tells us something about a kind of white, male auteurism that says, “I can handle anything and everything.”

So why does it still seem to resonate so much 35 years later, especially among black women?

TANYA: I think that “The Color Purple” resonates because of Alice Walker. That is the only reason. It’s not Spielberg, It’s not the white writer, Menno Meyjes, who adapted the book. It’s Alice Walker telling a story that was earnest, thoughtful and heartfelt. She opened herself up in a way that we as black women were not getting in the culture on a larger level. A lot of black women have experienced trauma, so the trauma experienced by Celie, Nettie, Sofia sort of flies off the page onto the screen. It was a story where we were believed. It was probably the best we could get at that time.

JESSICA: I’ve had several incidents of viewing the film with other queer black women, and even though the film is not perfect, it has become a kind of touchstone, across generations of queer black women in my experience, as a way of kind of reading a queerist document.

TERRI: I really felt Sofia’s rage. I just really understood that type of rage dealing with white lady nonsense and black men who were really just being like white slave owners. Despite the pantomimes and caricatures, there’s a poignancy to some of the situations in this movie. When Celie asks God to give her a sign letting her know what is happening to her and why, I understand that sense of isolation. And when Sofia says, “I sat in that jail, I sat in that jail til I felt like I’m about to rot to death,” metaphorically describing what her life had been like, it’s about more than the physical toll; it’s about the emotional labor.

Alice Walker’s reaction to the film has been consistent over the years. She didn’t really care for it, but she’s resigned herself to the idea that the novel is the novel, and the film is the film. 

JESSICA: I think what keeps me coming back to “The Color Purple” in all of its imperfections is that spiritual journey of self-actualization, which I do find a value in. There is a part of me that really finds a particular sense of refuge in Walker’s ultimate intentions, even if they aren’t necessarily perfectly translated to the film as a document. So, I agree somewhat with Walker’s sentiment, but I do think that the film in its imperfection can point people back to its original story, the novel. Yet there is a larger kind of question that I think Walker is navigating about how you find yourself in the most kind of magnificent of ways. That still feels really pertinent to me, both as someone who deeply cared for her novel and also enjoyed the film, but perhaps is very much aware that it’s never going to be the perfect thing that I want it to be.

MIRIAM: The efforts to make “The Color Purple” into a mainstream film involves a kind of racism that white audiences are able to see black people through. That lens has to be inserted in order to make it a mass distributed product. One can appreciate for the refusal to do that kind of translation with HBO’s “Watchmen” series, which doesn’t explain itself for white audiences. It’s the same kind of thing with Tyler Perry. His films are more often than not directly addressing a black audience. So if you don’t know who Johnny Gill is, that’s your problem. If you don’t get that joke that Mr. Brown makes, that’s your problem, because he’s not actually talking to you.

I was at times confused by some of the film’s tonal shifts, like the scene in which Mister is trying to impress Shug, and he’s bumbling around in the kitchen, trying to make breakfast for her. There’s Celie just sitting back, watching and laughing at him — this man who has been raping her since she was a teen, and who routinely beats her. Or when Sofia is first introduced and she’s aggressively marching up the hill to Mister’s house in this kind of comical way, so much that Harpo can barely keep up.

MIRIAM: The marching thing is really interesting. But what happens in the fullness of that scene is that basically Mister tries to shame Sofia, and she won’t be shamed. And so we get a sort of exaggerated sense of Sofia’s toughness and resilience, even as it is bodied in this moment of humor. Nevertheless, it’s the thing that we admire, love and respect about her. There are times when I need to see Sofia marching to war. There are times when I need to draw upon that image of strength. There are times when I need to imagine myself marching into a faculty meeting in the precise way that Sofia marched up that hill.

KRISTEN: “All my life I had to fight! All my life I had to fight.” That’s a real life statement. That’s Sofia’s mantra; evidence of the resilience of a black woman on screen that you rarely heard said that way. That’s what you see in that scene when she’s marching to Mister’s house.

TERRI: But it’s like the women are in a pretty serious black film, dealing with really deep and important issues, which is what brings tears to my eyes. For example, when they’re connecting and talking about what’s happening around and to them. When Shug brings Celie that letter. But then it just seems to me that Mister and the other men are doing some kind of weird pantomime of a sort of pretend blackness. It was like this kind of physical comedy and then these accents, and then the brutality that comes out of fucking nowhere. He’s essentially Simon Legree [the cruel slave owner in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”]. So I don’t know if it’s always a black story. But there are moments where I did find myself very moved and feeling that as a black woman now, not a 12 or 13 year old girl, I recognized the spaces where these confrontations with white people nonsense happens.

RACQUEL: When you have somebody like Oprah Winfrey — a larger, dark-skinned black woman playing a certain type of character — some of our interpretations are also about the specter of past black representation. Spielberg directs that character in line with the past, and so Sofia is burdened by past representations of the “Mammy” in cinema. Additionally, the music that he chose to accompany her when she’s marching up to Mister’s house adds to its comicality. And so we ask, why is black feminine anger undercut by this comedic tone? But as black women, we see it. We spot the game Spielberg played, and we discard it, and have our own interpretation of it.

So, given all that you’ve all said so far about Spielberg’s version, how do we feel about a 21st century adaptation of “The Color Purple”?

TANYA: We have to have black women telling black women’s stories. I’m tired of black men, white men, and white women telling black women’s stories. That’s how Spike Lee got his career started. That’s how Lee Daniels got his career started. Enough! Very few novels get to live in the American imagination in the way that “The Color Purple” has. But I would rather see adaptations of other work by Alice Walker, like “The Temple of My Familiar,” for example. There are other stories that can be told.

SAMANTHA: I want to echo that. Let’s not do the thing where we must continue to recreate these very interesting wheels, as opposed to conceive of self driving cars. We can move on from the wheel and see how other artists inflect, and pay homage to this work. But there’s also other texts out there that are just as worthy to be considered, not just reconsidered.

How does the film’s legacy sit with you today? 

MIRIAM: The characters of Celie, Shug and Sofia have become iconic. Erykah Badu’s “On and On” video is basically like a mashup of “The Color Purple” and “Cinderella” and “Gone With the Wind,” but the best parts of each one. It’s just such a beautiful reimagining of these characters, and an extension of an imagined world in which things are both the same and different. So I just think that there’s a way the legacy of the film is that kind of filtration. It sparks people’s imagination in ways that speak to the problems that the book and the film are trying to address, but also goes beyond what they were able to imagine.

TANYA: Walker’s novel resonated on so many different levels. It led to conversations about representation, about what it is to be a dark-skinned black woman, in ways that weren’t happening. So the novel did what it needed to do. The film did what it needed to do. And all of these different things sprung from that one novel. It was on Broadway for example. It had a massive impact.

RACQUEL: 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.

SAMANTHA: I like that this work is imperfect and yet it is also still an interesting artifact of labor practices, of a representational politics, of an intra-racial gender divide. And so I think the legacy is that this is a part of black film history, part of American film history and as it continues to be talked about and used in reference in the vast wasteland of film and television and visual content that is forgotten. This work is remembered.

“The Color Purple” is available on Amazon Prime and DIRECTV.

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