by Sara Halprin
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 1, 28
The 41st Street Playhouse in Santa Cruz, CA, where I first saw THE COLOR PURPLE at a sneak preview heavily attended by local women, is a UA theater, and before each show an animated trailer invites us to escape to the movies. Judging from the usual bill of fare at this theater, escape means forget your troubles, immerse yourself in a fantasy world of sex, violence, neat solutions, and occasional breathtaking landscapes, both imaginary and real, peopled entirely by white, conventionally handsome or beautiful heterosexual masters and their servants and hangers-on, who are sometimes people of color. In writing this review of the movie, THE COLOR PURPLE, from the perspective of a white middle-class woman, I want to begin by paying homage to all the people, Steven Spielberg included, who brought images of black women in the context of their own community to the serious center of the Hollywood screen. That is the first, most important reaction I want to record. Next, there is the complex set of reactions I have had to the precise nature of those images, what is there, and what is not.
I went to that preview with feelings I know were shared by many other women. I had loved Alice Walker's novel, loved it with a sense of recognition, empowerment, and a sense of, "Yes, this speaks for me, too." That is rare these days, especially rare in response to a book which turns out to be a national best-seller. I went to see the movie out of curiosity — what would Steven Spielberg and Hollywood make of this beloved book; with some fear — would this be another betrayal or more food for outrage; and with a strong sense of whatever else came of this, still, a novel about a poor black lesbian in the South had reached, if in name only, the silver screen, the place of recognition in mainstream culture. How would they do it? What would be lost? What saved, what changed? Nothing could keep me from seeing it. And so I brought my curiosity, pride, fear, and also a sense of fine irony — the old story of the impoverished, marginal artist contributing to the support of a Hollywood extravaganza.
Watching, therefore, with an eager, curious, and critical eye, I found myself moved along by the deft pacing and finely crafted artistry of the film and the way visual and dramatic equivalents or alternatives were found to translate the spirit of the novel to film form. Phrases like "dramatic economy," "visual metaphor," and "powerful crosscutting," flashed through my film-loving mind. The use of the mailbox, which becomes a silent, motionless character in the film, is a wonderfully effective film device recalling the literary device of the book, a series of letters written by the protagonist, Celie, first to God and then to Celie's sister Nettie. (The film also echoes this device in the film by the use of Celie's voice on the soundtrack, saying, "Dear God," and then narrating, often using direct quotations from the novel.)
The African narrative (Nettie's story) was perhaps the weakest aspect of Walker's novel but is brilliantly rendered in the film by a series of crosscut scenes, which could well become a set piece for classes studying film editing. Celie sits reading Nettie's letter on the porch, with a huge sun setting out front. Silhouetted against a giant sun, giraffes move across the screen, followed by the figure of Nettie, dancing. More silhouettes — Celie's husband, Mister, and Harpo, his son, demanding a cool drink — Celie looks up startled from her reading. The crosscutting continues, until, lost in her letter while standing in a field, Celie is shocked by a brutal slap from Mister, who wants her to shave him. This is followed by further crosscutting — Celie, dreamwalking, sharpens the razor as her children in Africa watch the preparations for a scarification ceremony, and her friend Shug, hearing that Celie is going to shave Mister, runs to prevent the murder Shug intuits. African drums unify the scenes and increase the tension. The entire crosscutting economically tells the story of Nettie in Africa, Celie's rage at Mister, and Shug's closeness to Celie, preparing for the next scene, the dramatic turning point of the film, in which Celie tells Mister off and leaves for Memphis with Shug, Shug's husband Grady, and her Harpo's wife Mary Agnes (ex-Squeak), cursing Mister and shouting her great line from the back of the departing car:
The pace, acting, script, and mise-en-scene are all faultless. Celie leaves to cheers from the audience, and Albert (Mister) is left to work through the fate decreed by Celie:
So far, I find this wonderful. A film is not a novel, not a series of letters to God, or to one's sister, not to be read at leisure, stopping and starting, stretching over time at the reader's whim, and incorporating subplots and characters that meander through the narrative. Even with today's blockbuster lengths (THE COLOR PURPLE, at 2-1/2 hours, is dwarfed by OUT OF AFRICA at nearly 3), a feature film based on a novel or literary text must seek ways of economizing, of telling a story film-style, of building a structure that works for its fixed time frame, for the situation of sitting in a dark theater, and later, in a living room in front of a TV, perhaps with the option of pausing for breaks, perhaps not. Above all, a film works on entirely different levels of perception, appealing through the senses to the emotions and spirit, and only then to the intellect.
So, I did not expect or want the movie, THE COLOR PURPLE, to be "faithful" to the book, The Color Purple, in terms of pacing, structure, number of characters and incidents included, or literary style. I wanted but, judging from the past and from what I know about the labyrinthine ways of Hollywood production, did not expect the movie to be faithful to the spirit of Alice Walker's book. In this respect, the film pleasantly surprised me on some counts.
Speaking as a white outsider to black culture, I was delighted to see that culture, so often misrepresented and disempowered, depicted here in terms of community, variety, richness and range of character and image, and in terms of deep, wide support systems. The film allows those oppressed to express their understanding of those systems and to articulate them for the audience; we hear, "No, Sophia, don't do it. Don't hit that white man!" and later, from Sophia, "Don't you do it, Miss Celie, don't you trade places with what I've been through."
The film depicts Sophia's story (Sophia is Celie's daughter-in-law), a story of violence first at the hands of black men, then, much worse, at the hands of white "justice." It depicts Celie's story of rape, battery and separation from family. It gives a sense of the representative nature of these stories, of their commonality in an oppressed society, and of the understanding that comes from looking at and growing through and beyond these experiences.
The film shows healing within the community. This is magnificent, and it accounts, I think, for the deep identification many people, black and white, have felt while watching the film. This is a feeling of empowerment. I think, for example, of the scene of Celie and Shug opening the letter from Nettie which Shug has just brought in from the mailbox. Before this, for many years, Celie's husband Mister had always taken in the mail in order to keep her sister Nettie's correspondence from Celie.
Celie and Shug sit in the bedroom, alternately reading from Nettie's letter and reading the last lines in unison. They are deeply bonded by the emotions of discovering that Nettle, gone for thirty years, is alive and well, has been writing faithfully to Celie all this time, and is with Celie's two lost children in Africa. The final shot of the sequence presents a wide angle shot of the two women sitting on Shug's bed. Celie's pose is one seen in many photographs of working-class women. She sits with her legs wide, feet planted on the floor, back straight — she offers an image of strength and utility. Shug, sitting next to Celie, wearing a close-fitting dress, has her knees together, legs to one side, in a pose associated with "femininity," "allure," "poise." Each woman is represented by the traits which have been survival tools for her. Both kinds of traits are validated by the film, as is the women's bonding.
But what is the nature of this bond? In one scene we have seen Celle and Shug kissing tenderly and holding each other, a scene which is exceedingly rare in mainstream cinema and which I found a source of satisfaction, as I found the scenes of deep and playful physical affection between Celie and Nettie. Hollywood (and white middle-class culture) have provided me with very few role models for sisterly love and affection. This scene between Shug and Celie shows exactly the kind of affection that we see between Celle and Nettie, except that the scene with Shug and Celle seems perhaps less intense. Shug's song, which she performs publicly for Celie, was written especially for the film by composer/producer Quincy Jones is called "Sister," and expresses very sisterly emotions.
Unlike the way that the film treats with courage and frankness the controversial, potentially explosive, and certainly disturbing issues of incest, battery, rape, violence of man to woman and of white to black, and racism on the parts of men and women, it shies away from what now seems to be Hollywood's last remaining taboo: frank, non-exploitative portrayal of healthy, positive sexual bonding between two women. The film also avoids, and denies by its omission, other issues the novel explores — spirituality and changed roles for men.
Since I had read the book when it first came out several years ago, after I saw the film I thought that I might have read more into the book than was actually there or than Alice Walker had intended. So I reread the book. Nope, I hadn't read more than was there. Shug Avery helps Celie to explore and celebrate her sexuality, very explicitly. The two women bond sexually to the point that, when Shug temporarily abandons Celie to go off with a young man, Celie's newfound self-respect and serenity become shattered. She slowly, painfully comes back to her own center before Shug returns to her. This stands as a really important aspect of Celie's development in the novel. Furthermore, although Shug is clearly bisexual and frankly enjoys sex with either gender, Celie in the novel remains equally clear about her disinterest toward men. When Mister, having redeemed himself and having become Celie's friend (another disappointing omission in the film), proposes a real marriage to her, Celle turns him down, saying, "Take off they pants, and men look like frogs to me."
In addition to skirting the issue of sexuality between women, the film drastically alters the portrayal of Mister. In the book, he is a small man, very different from the tall handsome actor, Danny Glover. In the novel, after Celie leaves, and after a period of breakdown, Mister commences to clean and cook and interest himself in community affairs and humane acts. He ends by sitting on Celie's porch helping her sew pants:
This image of the domestication of Mister is powerful and truly radical in its subversion of patriarchal attitudes, but it is entirely absent from the film, which manufactures instead an ersatz redemption. There, with his hoarded cash and his privileged access to Nettie's letters, the lonely, unkempt Mister arranges to bring Nettie and Celie's children home from Africa. Passing across the screen at the end of the movie, across the image of Celie and Nettie embracing, the film presents him as a familiar image, the lonely man, the outcast who has reformed at last, but who remains an outsider. Clint Eastwood, the Lone Ranger.
There is one more area of significant change which I want to discuss. I mean by "significant" a change which doesn't seem to have been dictated by a need for dramatic economy or translation from novel to film, but rather by profound social/ psychological/ ideological forces. The film shows Shug Avery's entire character as motivated by her problematic relationship with her father. He's a preacher who will not speak to his erring daughter until after she is legally married and comes singing of God's grace into his church. Shug's reunion with her father is a major sequence in the film, one which carries a substantial burden of representing black community and culture as the sequence fuses musically jazz and church hymns and fuses dramatically and visually the juke joint and the church.
But this entire narrative element is unique to the film. And this new subplot acts as a powerful, if unconscious, affirmation of patriarchal values. In the novel, Shug sees her relation with her mother as problematic. Her father, not a preacher so far as we know, is hardly alluded to except as someone she loved to hug and kiss, which bothered her mother. He seems to have died. Furthermore, far from yearning for a preacher father's approval, the novel's Shug specifically disavows church and traditional religion, explaining to Celie that the God in a church is a white man's God:
Shug's line about God being pissed off if you walk past the color purple in a field without noticing it is placed by Walker in the context of this discussion about religion, with Shug listing sex, specifically with Celie, as one of the blessings loved by God. In the film, this remark about the color purple follows Celie's voice telling us that she and Shug both have a longing, meaning that Celie longs for Nettie, Shug for her father. And the remark is immediately followed by a scene set in Shug's father's church where he walks out on Shug. In the novel, Shug marries Grady in part because she is angry with Albert (Mister) for beating Celie. In the film Shug accepts Albert's beating of Celie as part of his character and proceeds to tell Celie how she loves sleeping with Albert.
In short, all the elements of the novel that are most subversive in terms of sexual, rather than race or class-conceived politics, have become totally disregarded or changed in the film. The result is a film which presents strong positive images of affectionate bonding between women, of sisterly love, and of family and community ties in a rich black culture — all real accomplishments in today's cultural climate. Yet we can ignore only to our peril the fact that the film also denies completely issues the novel had explored about sexual love between women, post-patriarchal spirituality (with clear roots in African pantheism), and men's potential for developing. We learn again and again that to support one progressive issue while suppressing another ultimately becomes self-destructive for us all. I heartily recommend wide viewing and use of the film THE COLOR PURPLE, but viewers should read and compare it to Alice Walker's novel at the same time.