The Color Purple won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1983. Alice Walker’s novel is unique in its preoccupation with spiritual survival and with exploring the oppressions, insanities, loyalties, and triumphs of black women. Walker’s major interest is whether or how change can occur in the lives of her black characters. All the characters except Nettie and Shug lead insular lives, unaware of what is occurring outside their own small neighborhood. They are particularly unaware of the larger social and political currents sweeping the world. Despite their isolation, however, they work through problems of racism, sexism, violence, and oppression to achieve a wholeness, both personal and communal.
In form and content, The Color Purple is a slave narrative, a life story of a former slave who has gained freedom through many trials and tribulations. Instead of black oppression by whites, however, in this novel there is black oppression by blacks. It is also a story by a black woman about black women. Women fight, support, love, and heal each other—and they grow together. The novel begins in abject despair and ends in intense joy. To discover how this transformation occurs, it is important to examine three aspects of the novel: the relationships between men and women; the relationships among women; and the relationships among people, God, and nature. At the beginning of the novel, alienation and separation are evident in all of these relationships, but by the conclusion of the novel, an integration exists among all elements of life. In terms of the relationship between men and women, no personal contact between the sexes is possible at the beginning of the novel, since the male feels that he must dominate the female through brutality.
The correspondence between Celie and Nettie is the novel’s most basic example of the alienation of women from women. Sometimes the alienation is caused by the men, as when Mr.—— keeps Nettie’s letters from Celie, but often it results from the attitudes of the women themselves. For the first half of the novel, the women are against one another, often because of jealousy, as when Shug mocks Celie and flaunts her relationship with Celie’s husband. Walker presents numerous examples of women in competition with one another, frequently because of men, but, more important, because they have accepted the social code indicating that women define themselves by their relationship with the men in their lives.
The first indication that this separation between women will be overcome occurs when the women surmount their jealousy and join together. Central to this development is the growing closeness of Celie and Shug. Shug teaches Celie much about herself: to stand up for herself to Mr.——, about her own beauty and her self-worth, and about the enjoyment of her own body. The love of Celie and Shug is perhaps the strongest bond in the novel; the relationship between Celie and her sister is also a strong bond.
While the men in the novel seem to have no part in the female community, which, in essence, exists in opposition to them, they, too, are working out their salvation. As a result of the way the women have opposed them, they reevaluate their own lives and they come to a greater sense of their own wholeness, as well as that of the women. They develop relationships with the women on a different and more fulfilling level. The weakness of the men results from their having followed the dictates of their fathers, rather than their having followed their own desires. Mr.——, for example, wants to marry Shug, but in the face of his father’s opposition, he marries another woman and makes her miserable because she is not Shug. Harpo tries to model his relationship with Sofia on the relationship between his father and Celie. Ultimately, both men find a kind of salvation because the women stand up to them and because the men accept their own gentler side. The men, by the end of the novel, become complete human beings just as the women do; therefore, the men are ready for relationships with women. Near the end of the novel, Mr.—— is content to sew trousers alongside Celie. By the end of the novel, Celie and Mr.——, whom she at last calls Albert, find a companionship of sorts. Harpo is content doing housework and caring for the children while Sofia works outside the home. Each individual becomes worthy in his or her own eyes—and in the eyes of others. The separation between men and women is shattered, and fulfilling human relationships can develop.
Alienation is also present in Nettie’s letters from Africa. The relationship between African men and women is presented as similar to that of men and women in the American South. The social structure of the Olinka tribe is rigidly patriarchal; the only roles available to women are those of wife and mother. At the same time, the women, who frequently share the same husband, band together in friendship. Nettie debunks the myth that Africa offers a kind of salvation for African Americans searching for identity.
In Walker’s view, God and nature are inextricably intertwined; therefore, alienation from one implies alienation from the other. Celie writes to God for much of the novel, but she writes out of despair, not hope; she feels no sustaining connection with God. Through her conversations with Shug, she comes to believe that God is in nature and in the self, and that divinity is found by developing the self and by celebrating everything that exists as an integrated whole. Celie also comes to believe that joy can come even to her; she learns to celebrate life’s pleasures, including the color purple.
That spirit of celebration is embodied in the conclusion of the novel. At the Fourth of July celebration, all the divisions between people—divisions that had plagued and tormented the characters throughout the novel—have been healed. The characters’ level of consciousness has been raised, and the seeds of feminism and liberation have been planted.
Were The Color Purple to be released today Steven Spielberg might respond to all the flak by quoting the poet Ali G: "Is it because I is black?"
For The Color Purple is Spielberg's black film. The one that's inside so many white, liberal American filmmakers but rarely transpires in such brazen, unapologetic form. Wracked, we may assume, with the subliminal national guilt of slavery, many white directors have tackled black issues, not least, among Spielberg's immediate forbears, the Canadian Norman Jewison, who made In The Heat Of The Night (1967) and later A Soldier's Story (1984), and only relinquished Malcolm X to Spike Lee when he realised he wasn't black enough to tell the tale. Brave decision.
So what was Spielberg doing, after The Temple Of Doom, with his pale mitts on Alice Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple? Firstly, this was a symptom of the director's self-intellectualising phase, which may have been an entree to a mid-life
crisis — he was 38, and anticipating his first kid with Amy Irving — or simply a reaction to almost a decade of Academy snubs, sidelining him as some kind of Barnum figure. Having given literature a wide berth in childhood (he turned his school copy of The Scarlet Letter into a flick book), he was now making up for lost time — also acquiring the rights to Empire Of The Sun and Schindler's Ark.
Taking place between 1909 and 1946 in Georgia, The Color Purple (as in, "It pisses God off when you walk by the colour purple in a field and don't notice") is the story of Celie (debutante Whoopi Goldberg), a young black girl forced into a marriage of convenience with a cruel, unfaithful widower, "Mister" (Danny Glover). As if to accelerate the merry-go-round of misery that is her life, Celie is separated from her beloved sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) and must also endure the knowledge that her two children (sired by who else but her own father) were sold at birth to a local reverend.
Unlike so many other films dealing with blacks in the South, racism is barely touched upon (not a burning cross in sight). Whites are largely absent from the picture — save for the local mayor and his wife, pompous rather than evil. Spielberg simply treats the community as a microcosm for life, even an extended family. So we get good blacks and bad blacks — a refreshing realism supplied by the book — and in that respect The Color Purple isn't about race issues at all.
It is sentimental though, for both a mythic past (the painter Andrew Wyeth has a lot to answer for here), and the simplicity of rural life on the porch in a pair of dungarees. How very different from the home life of our own dear Steve. The "Spielbergisation" of Walker's book can be seen in the toning down of its explicit lesbian tryst between Celie and Mister's mistress Shug Avery (the fabulous Margaret Avery). Alice Walker herself curtailed other more potentially damaging decisions, such as the casting of Diana Ross in
the Shug role. "We had to make it clear," Walker said afterwards, "that authenticity means not having Diana Ross! The final cast list must seem like they have stepped straight from the pages of the book."
Well, true to Spielberg's enduring sixth sense, The Color Purple is perfectly and quietly cast. (It made Goldberg and Danny Glover stars, and launched Chicago talk show I host Oprah Winfrey to national acclaim.) That said, the film ultimately groans under the weight of its desire to do good. Spielberg was I all too conscious of his unsuitability for the job. He'd tried to turn it down when associate producer Quincy Jones had first approached I him, and later admitted, "I wanted to do this I book because I was scared I couldn't." As a result, he allowed too many cooks to advise him, and the broth was duly spoiled. Not only I did hands-on "Project Consultant" Walker hover over his right shoulder, but Jones also spent a lot of time on set and in the editing room, on the grounds that he needed to be close to the material for which he was composing the score. (An awful, sugary score, by the way — bring back John Williams.)
Spielberg even enrolled Gordon Parks, director of The Learning Tree (1969) and Shaft (1971), to guide him during filming, gathering images as a stills photographer, assisting him with the "vibe" and, in effect, playing his uncredited black Jiminy Cricket. I
None of this helped in the end. It's a beautifully shot, overlong piece of afternoon I schmaltz, which, biographer John Baxter notes, was "edited in the glow of new fatherhood." It enraged African-American pressure groups for showing black men as brutes and suggesting blacks lived in too much comfort, and pissed off lesbians who felt "their" story had been airbrushed out.
It made about $140 million and won a grand total of... no Oscars (from 13 nominations). Best Film that year? Out Of Africa. About white people.
Spielberg's dalliance with race is not entirely successful, but it's stilly an emotionally brave film with some fine performances.