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‘The Color Purple’ is a Vibrant Reintroduction to a Story of Healing and Empowerment

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Growing up, I vaguely knew about the 1985 film, “The Color Purple.” The movie registered to me in bits and pieces, as I was too young to understand the depth of the story. When I entered my teenage years, I began to familiarize myself with both the original 1982 novel and also the critically acclaimed movie. However, in recent years I was shocked to learn that Alice Walker’s book was slowly inching its way up several lists of Banned Books in public facilities and libraries in various regions of the country. Though these policies hadn’t affected me directly, I was upset to learn that curious readers like me wouldn’t be able to pick up such a powerful read in libraries anymore. Both mediums allowed me to understand the story to be a vital storytelling of the Black experience and a tangible example of perseverance. 

As we celebrated Women’s History Month this March, I’m inspired by novelist Alice Walker, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Color Purple.” The original book in 1982 to Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation in 1985, a Broadway musical in 2016, and now a movie-musical adaptation released in 2023, “The Color Purple” has transcended a journey of controversy and redemption that has spanned generations and continues to make history. The nuances between the versions are interesting and engaging to analyze in the context of the different forms of media that are interpreted by each audience. Disclaimer: there are spoilers below.

Side-by-side images of young Nettie and Celie from both the 1985 film and the 2023 version.

Opening the movie, sisters Nettie and Celie sing and play a hand-clap rhyming game while in a tree. Then, not even two minutes into the film, an electrifying and soulful song called “Mysterious Ways” transforms the screen into many people singing, dancing, and clad in Sunday’s best attire as they make their way to church. 

During my initial watch, I thought it was odd to include such an upbeat and jovial number while Celie struggled to walk due to her soon-to-be-born baby. On top of that, her father’s harsh scolding made the scene one of both sweet and sour notes. Upon further analysis of this scene, I noticed more details, such as how the camera pans a close-up lens of Celie staring at an image of Jesus dying on the cross. The focus of this scene is to show how captivated Celie is sitting in church service and how a deep loyalty to God would set the tone for the rest of the movie. While this isn’t new information from previous versions (in Walker’s 1982 version, the beginning of every chapter began with “Dear God…”), it does more than enough to set up young Celie as self-aware about her relationship with her spirituality.

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In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Taraji P. Henson shared, “The first movie missed culturally. We don’t stay stuck in our traumas. We laugh, sing, go to church, dance, celebrate, fight for joy, find joy, and keep it; otherwise, we would die. So, as soon as you see the first frame, you’re going to know that this movie is different. It’s light, it’s bright, it’s vibrant. It’s us.”

Actress Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as Celie in the 2023's "The Color Purple." Close-up of Mpasi in a church pew, wearing a white dress.

It is essential to note the significance of a loving motherly presence in the home for Celie and Nettie, which is described in the book but omitted in the original movie. Though she died early on, she cared for both daughters and even taught Celie how to sew, holding up a piece of fabric and saying, “This color is gonna look like heaven on you.” Later in the film, when Celie gives birth to baby Adam, she has a midwife (played in a cameo by the original Celie, Whoopi Goldberg),who wasn’t present in the 1985 adaptation, to protect and care for her throughout the  process. From the beginning, Celie has a wide array of loving female figures who raise her to love herself. But, the storyline quickly goes downward from here. 

One thing I can appreciate is that throughout Celie’s hardships of abuse dealt by the hand of her sinister husband she calls “Mister” (played by Colman Domingo), the presence of powerful and uplifting songs begins to coax her out of a shell of sacrifice and compliance. When I saw Danielle Brooks – who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Sophia – grace the movie screen for the first time, I felt refreshed knowing Celie had just gotten the first reminder in a long time of what exactly it looks like for someone to be a woman and an assertive character simultaneously. Everyone in the theater was here for her confident and bold nature to put her foot down on anything she was against with a stern ‘Hell No.”

Not too long after, Shug Avery- played by none other than Taraji P. Henson- struts her way onto center stage with her charm and powerhouse vocals. In Steven Spielberg’s version, Shug pokes fun when she meets Celie for the first time, saying, “You sure is ugly.” Here, the line is never uttered once from Shug’s lips. Director Blitz Bazawule shares with The Hollywood Reporter, “The violence against Celie is more inferred than shown. It didn’t work in mine because [of] the levels and the investment in the narrative around sisterhood. Celie and Shug Avery’s relationship could not recover from that.” In this light, this subtle change makes Celie and Shug’s first encounter more positive and creates a smoother transition for their growing affection and love toward the other. 

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Speaking of affection, Fantasia’s and Taraji’s soothing and ethereal duet “What About Love” was a cherry on top to display their budding romance and portrayal of Black queer love. It looked as though the pair had waltzed their way onto a Broadway stage of starlight. This scene was a precious moment that gave their relationship justice when juxtaposed with the modest kiss from the original film. When the 1985 film debuted, coming out wasn’t widely accepted in the media

In a BET interview Bazawule shared that he and his team “landed on giving Celie an imagination because we have to see her go through that resilience and ultimately figure out how she arrives at forgiving others.” He adds,”The beauty of seeing into her headspace made her a more active character, understanding how to liberate herself, understanding how to love, who to love, how to love herself, these were all things that she had to figure out.”

Actresses Taraji P. Henson (left) and Fantasia Barrino (right) as Shug Avery and Celie in 2023's "The Color Purple."

Unfortunately, Shug and Celie’s romance falls flat as Shug decides to leave rural Georgia’s buzzing swamps and green fields to continue her artistic pursuits elsewhere. Before Shug leaves, she helps Celie find all of the letters from long-lost sister Nettie that Mister’s been hiding all this time. 

In the 1985 version, this moment spurs one of the most pivotal scenes in the movie. Mister hits Celie for discovering the letters and demands she shave his face, as Shug will return home soon. Previously, when Celie shaves Mister’s face, she seemed afraid. But this time, she’s fed up, sick and tired of her mistreatment. The viewer’s anxiety builds as the scene cuts between a group of children in Africa performing a ritual involving a blade piercing their skin and then panning to Celie’s face – splayed with anger and dark intentions for Miste –  and Shug running to save Mister’s life. Finding every hidden letter Nettie wrote to her renews her with a new sense of purpose, and Celie now realizes she has a reason to fight back and acknowledge her worth. Shug discovers just in time that Celie could have something planned for Mister, leading her to run to his house to save his life. She grabs Celie’s hand, and Mister jumps up, realizing what could’ve gone down. 

In the 2023 version, Celie seems more hesitant to bear the weight of the task of killing Mister. Her face shows a ripple of emotions, one of which I initially interpreted as anxiety. It’s a stark contrast to the original where everything from Celie’s taut expression, her slow movements, the brooding silence, leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind  how prepared she is to avenge herself. 

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Unlike in the 23’ film, this scene took its time, letting the moment build up with suspense and because of that, I think the current adaptation doesn’t hold as much weight in this moment.

Still, both versions serve a point where Celie realizes that she has a reason to fight back against those who’ve dealt injustice and pain to her: to reunite with her loved ones again.

A split image of Fantasia Barrino as Celie (left) in 2023's "The Color Purple" and Whoopi Goldberg (right) in the 1985 version.

Towards the movie’s end, one character’s story changes for the better. Mister is no longer a one-dimensional villain but instead a troubled character who intentionally redeems himself, even becoming amicable with Celie. This choice is a pleasant nod toward Mister’s arc in the novel, where he and Celie learn to be friends and he is known to her as “Albert.”  In the 80s, the film spurred much uproar and led to debates about how the film showcased black communities and families. As “The Color Purple” gained notoriety, it was perceived by some audiences- including black civil rights groups- as a reinforcement of a harmful and enduring stereotype. In a 2022 podcast dedicated to the film, Pop Culture Happy Hour co-host Aisha Harris shared “The president of the Hollywood Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP called the movie ‘very degrading for Black men.”This subtle storyline shift can bring a new, refreshing perspective to young and older audiences alike. 

Actor Colman Domingo as Mister in the 2023 adaptation of "The Color Purple." Domingo's Mister sits on a horse, holding a banjo.

While the original version is regarded as arguably one of the best movie classics of all time, it lost in the awards department, remarkably making 11 Academy Award losses in various Oscars categories. Similarly, factors such as the SAG-AFTRA strike and a late release nomination led the film to fall down the same route. The film’s only Oscars nomination- Danielle Brooks in Best Supporting Actress lost to Da’Vine Joy Randolph for her role in “The Holdovers”.  However, the cast did take home several NAACP accolades, most notably winning Outstanding Motion Picture.

Overall, I viewed The Color Purple as a love letter of alleviation and self-worth for anyone struggling to find someone whose heart they can call home. It fleshed humor and pain into a powerful ballad of empathy. Regardless of which version, the film ends humbly with Celie, her children, and Nettie finally reuniting on Easter Sunday. Oprah, who was first hesitant about the movie-musical adaptation, felt inspired after the mainstream awareness of the #MeToo movement. She shared, “What if the brutal abuse of Celie isn’t the core focus of the film, and instead it explores Celie’s imagination? An imagination that shows her hopes, dreams, and her own agency?” As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m sure Celie’s growth and journey will continue to inspire and captivate everyone’s hearts.

A still from the final scene of 2023's "The Color Purple." The majority of the cast are standing around tables that circle a tree, hands clasped and arms raised.

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