S2: The Black Elite (Outside the Box) – Highlighting Blacks in Prominent Roles in Film/TV.
Ep 3: The Color Purple
A woman once said, loosely, “The worst thing to be in America is Black and a woman”. At the time, a budding teenager, I was completely confused as the woman herself, is as Black as me. I was flabbergasted, to say the least. As I aged, this is a moment I often go back to. Though the memory of that day is lost, those words will never be forgotten. Up until recently, I was unable to comprehend. I stumbled upon the answer and genuine intent of what she meant. All it took was a 1985 film filled with Black Elite pioneers to give me all the answers I would ever require. Though not my first viewing, watching it again as a maturing adult, was more resonating than the first time.
The Color Purple follows one woman’s journey through 40 something years of strife in early 1900s America. When Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is bought by Albert Johnson, played by Danny Glover, after his first wife dies, she is ensnared in a cycle of constant abuse and bigotry. Once Albert severs Celie’s relationship with her sister Nettie, later played by Akosua Busia, their “marriage” can be summed up as indentured servitude, among other things. In the film, we can see shades of the cycle of violence and treatment toward women imprinted in Albert’s son, Harpo Johnson, later played by Willard E. Pugh, as he gave Celie a hard time growing up and eventually tried to throw his weight around with his first wife, Sofia, played by Oprah Winfrey, who would never tolerate his attempts at humoring his father. Celie’s life is filled with as many highs as lows over her years with the arrival Albert’s lover and singer, Shug Avery, played by Margaret Avery, shows up to stay after a tour of shows. Celie’s story is truly powerful and beautifully shot by Steven Spielberg, who was reluctant to take on the job due to the plot. To his credit, Spielberg felt it best a Black director helm the project for obvious reasons. However a supportive push from one of the producers and contributing music artist, Quincy Jones, would ultimately convince him to stay on and what would give him the tools to be able to handle his more emotionally deeper works like Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List. It was this mix of talent, on both sides of the camera that led to one of the most socially timeless works in American cinema.
Though there is much to say about The Color Purple, features first time movie roles for both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Celie and Sofia are the juxtaposition of Black women in that time period. Celie, the reserved and subservient one as opposed to Sofia’s never say die attitude. Throughout the course of this film, we learn that Celie, Sofia, as well as all Black women go through a certain trial by fire, constant abuse from men. In most cases, these are men in their own family. A stunning realization and one Sofia refuses to accept. Sofia’s resilience is shown numerous as she’d beat on Harpo as often as Harpo would talk about beating her. On the other hand, Celie was unable to fight like Sofia and she fell victim time and time again with no way out. At a certain point, she too fell into thinking this was the lifestyle a woman should just accept. To the point where she pushes Harpo to beat Sofia. A woman insists a man beat another woman! Albert’s cycle of violence is imprinted in not only Harpo but now, Celie as the receiver of this broken perspective. It takes a confrontation from Sofia to set Celie straight in a way that shows her the error in her ways. Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey sign, seal, and deliver masterful performances as Celie and Sofia form a foundation of respect and friendship that withstands 8 years of legal abuse in prison for laying out the Mayor during a confrontation with his brilliantly ignorant wife, Miss Millie, played by Dana Ivey. One of the most jarring notions about The Color Purple, and Hollywood in general, is that Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey would be famously snubbed in their categories at the Oscars.
The Color Purple has one of the most socially relevant scenes of its time. Though there are so many, the most prevalent is the Christmas scene with Miss Millie. In one of the most appalling sequences, Miss Millie drops off Sofia at her house, saying she should be “allowed” to spend Christmas day with her family. What should have been a touching and heartfelt scene featuring Sofia, Harpo and their family in emotional rejoice was upended by Miss Millie and her awful driving. Her inability to drive causes a ruckus as the men of the family try to get Miss Millie to stop the car. What follows feels too familiar. As the rest of family observes the action play out. Miss Millie jumps out the car, hysterically yelling and attacking the men. All while insisting the men were trying to attack her. Though no one was fooled, Sofia did calm her down. Miss Millie wanted to leave but refused assistance from anyone but Sofia, effectively voiding her Christmas day time with her family. Those that watch films with your brains in your heads, like myself, may recall the Trayvon Martin’s, the Charleena Lyles’s, and countless others across our history that had their lives taken based on the jaded views of racist minds during the viewing of this scene. I was very upset to realize how this is not just a well written scene with a cast and crew bringing this to life, it’s a modern day dramatization. Despite all perceived social progress, this moment can play out at any time as a massive laugh in the face of all the progress. We’ve gotten no farther than this. Until we can look at this scene and recall what a time we lived in and notice how far we’ve come, true progress cannot be made due to progress not actually being made at all. True social progress will come when racism is totally put to bed and unfortunately, it’s something that is still here in the present.
Through harsh themes of abuse and bigotry, The Color Purple provides the emotional clarity to the opening statement. Black is beautiful. Women are beautiful. Yet both cannot seem to be true to everyone on this planet. As if to be Black and Woman means you are less. This film gives us a staggering depiction of one that is seen and treated as such. The only difference between Miss Millie and any other woman in this film his her white face and the level of treatment is so far apart from the second person. Sickening and saddening at the same time. If you can revisit this film with a straight face and stand by Albert and his father’s views at any point, I would like to see the argument. For there is no sane argument that justifies that level of treatment toward Black women or anyone for that matter. Yet, here we are. Celie, Sofia, and even Shug experience varying levels of abuse from the men in their lives without so much as a reason why. Today, some are of the same with adjustments to the times. We are stuck in cycles of abuse and bigotry and unless we are ready to note, address, and move on in mature ways, we are doomed to art imitating this form of life for the foreseeable future.
Of the 10 Oscars nominations The Color Purple would receive, it would win nothing. In what as seen as one of the biggest Hollywood snubs, there was an outcry. As cycles do not tend to break, do not be surprised if this one does not either as Black Panther enters the race as one of the more successful films of the year. However, accolades are irrelevant if the world around you remains the same. Though we show flashes of progress, there has not been enough evidence to show society turning the corner for the better as racial tensions have seemed to intensify. I may have been young when I heard that woman voice those words and it’s phrasing I hope to never hear again as we grow as a people and as a society.
In of the funniest scenes in this bleak tale, Sofia punches Squeak into a hole and Celie looks quite comfortable in chaos.
*Note: Not available to stream, buy the physical disc, hit up a friend, or torrent