The Color Purple
The Color Purple
Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple might as well have been about a bunch of dancing eggplants for all it has to say about black history. In its disregard of black life outside its cartoon images, the film is a throwback to Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures or Disney’s Song of the South, to the days when the NAACP had to constantly petition for fair treatment, and when the casting of a black woman as an uppity maid was heralded as progress. But no studio mogul could have set the darkies singing and bopping more merrily down that perpetually dusty back road than America’s present so-called master of enchantment.
Given Spielberg’s previous films, the ruthless naiveté of his adaptation of Alice Walker’s pious best seller should not have come as a surprise. Nevertheless the film was denounced as, among other things, a hate letter to black men. The film’s portrayal of black men as well as its glittering surface led many to compare it to The Birth of a Nation, although Spielberg’s effort is neither as technically innovative nor as ideologically primitive. Consequently, there was a second-time-as-farce aspect to the news that The Color Purple was picketed at its première, just as Griffith’s film was when it opened in 1915. Now that the furor—“one of the silliest controversies ever made up,” Bill Cosby said—has been succeeded by other controversies, the receipts entered in the record books, and the Oscars not won, questions remain like an aftertaste.
The novel and the film of The Color Purple are both works of the imagination that make claim to historical truth. The novel is set between the wars, while the film opens with the date 1909, as if someone had decided that the story of a black woman’s hard life in the backwater was more plausible in a less immediate social past. Or maybe the film begins further back in time in order to account for Whoopi Goldberg’s advanced age when she appears as the heroine, Celie, grown up. In any event, 1906 leaps out from the screen like a correction to the novel, which, with its flat characters, sudden revelations, and moral tags, has a doggedly nineteenth-century quality.
Unfortunately, Spielberg and his screen writer were neither sufficiently free of Walker’s text nor faithful enough to it. Throughout the film one has the sense that the property was treated as a libretto, and one can almost hear the pages turn in anticipation of the aria, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Spielberg’s strategy was to broaden Walker’s cunning simplifications, and in blowing up her plot, Spielberg not only makes its flaws more visible, e also uncovers, beneath the feminist rhetoric, the melodrama at its heart.
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. Celie, age fourteen, writes letters to “God.” She has no one else to talk to about her troubles, of which she has plenty. She is raped and beaten by her pa; he takes the two babies she has by him and gives them away like puppies. “When I start to hurt and then my stomach start moving and then that little baby come out my pussy chewing on it fist you could have knock me over with a feather.” Celie is condemned to a life of drudgery because she is ugly, poor, black, and a woman. She is married off to a “Mr.___” (called “Mister” in the film) who has more brats than he let on. “I spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy…. He pick up a rock and laid my head open. The blood ran all down tween my breasts.” Most of the novel concerns the downs of Celie’s life with her new family and her long campaign to free herself.
The agent of Celie’s salvation is a “high-natured” blues singer, a woman called Shug, who is Mister’s lifelong obsession and who becomes Celie’s great love as well.
I cry and cry and cry. Seem like it all come back to me, laying there in Shug’s arms. How it hurt and how much I was surprise. How it stung while I finish trimming his hair. How the blood drip down my leg and mess up my stocking. How he don’t never look at me straight after that….
Don’t cry, Celie, Shug say. Don’t cry. She start kissing the water as it come down side my face….
My mama die, I tell Shug. My sister Nettie run away, Mr. come git me to take care his rotten children. He never ast me nothing bout myself. He clam on top of me and fuck and fuck, even when my head bandaged. Nobody ever love me, I say.
She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back; say, um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other.
Celie isn’t shy before the Lord. The letters are rendered in a folk idiom, not as someone like Celie would probably compose them, and one wonders why Walker did not let Celie tell her story directly as an innocent narrator.
In addition to Celie’s racy missives, the novel consists of letters from Nettie, Celie’s beloved little sister who runs away from their pa only to be turned out by Celie’s husband after fighting him off. The earnest Nettie writes to Celie from Africa where she has gone to be a missionary with a couple who just so happen also to be the adoptive parents of Celie’s two children. However, Mister intercepts Nettie’s letters. Celie, with Shug’s help, finds Nettie’s letters in a trunk and the realization that Mister has kept them from her for some twenty years leads her to vote with her feet for freedom.
The use of Africa in the novel points to the programmatic intention behind Walker’s design. The motherland is celebrated: “Did you know there were great cities in Africa, greater than Milledgeville or even Atlanta, thousands of years ago?” Blackness per se is also honored:
And Celie, there is something magical about it. Because the black is so black the eye is simply dazzled, and then there is the shining that seems to come, really, from moonlight, it is so luminous, but their skin glows even in the sun.
In between descriptions of plantings and other rituals, Nettie is critical of patriarchy, of the limited choices for women in her village, and of the practice of clitorectomy. Walker manages not to miss any bases in the correct-line department, and perhaps that is why Nettie’s letters seem stiff when compared to Celie’s back-fence gossip with the Lord.
Nettie is also something of a historical anachronism. The American Missionary Association trained most of its black evangelicals in the late nineteenth century. The example of Nora A. Gordon of Spelman College, who was compelled by “Christ’s preciousness” to “take the Bread of Life to the poor heathen,” inspired black women students in the last century not only because being a missionary was a dramatic gesture of racial uplift but also because it was an acceptable expression of ambition, a way out. But funds for and belief in the missionary vocation declined sharply after the turn of the century, and women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Alice Dunbar-Nelson became educators or worked in the black woman’s club movement instead. Nettie, not a Garveyite, would have been historically more convincing had she merely gone north.
Mainly, through the lives of Nettie and Celie, Walker means to say a great deal about the liberating possibilities of the bonds between black women. But she also means to say a lot about black men, those boulders obstructing the path to glory.
He beat me today cause he say I winked at a boy in church. I may have got somethin in my eye but I didn’t wink. I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth, I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.
The black men are seen at a distance—that is, entirely from the point of view of the women—as naifs incapable of reflection, tyrants filled with impotent rage, or as totemic do-gooders. Walker’s cards are always stacked against them—“Well, you know wherever there’s a man, there’s trouble”—even when her polemical intention is confused by her folksy tone. “A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” Contemporary black women’s fiction has always contained scenes of domestic tension and even offhand domestic violence. But in The Color Purple this violence is on virtually every page. And throughout the novel, the color of the villains has changed, from white society to black men.
The outcome for Celie, equipped with the moral superiority of the victim, is never in doubt. “He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.” But she emerges victorious. “You a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body is just the welcome mat I need.” The woman who has paid more than her share of dues is entitled to considerable bonuses.
Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Thank you for bringing my sister Nettie and her children home.
It even turns out that the children are not the products of incest: “Pa is not our pa.”
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a brilliant evocation of the mores and folkways of the deep South, is clearly one of Walker’s models. Hurston’s heroine, Janie Crawford, is a subversive in a way that was new in black writing back when other black women novelists, Jessie Faucet and Nella Larsens, for example, were depicting black women who were refined, urban, and eager to hold to convention. When the grandmother tells Janie—
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his women-folks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world as far as Ah can see.
—one can see where Alice Walker’s perspective comes from. But she has turned Hurston’s folk wisdom, with its wry humor and painful good sense, into feminist clichés. Whereas Hurston places her characters firmly within their moment and language, Walker whips around hers a vague tidewater transcendentalism. “But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive.” Celie, like Janie, manages to escape from a grinding marriage, but whereas Janie follows her own principles, Celie ends up in a feminist paradise—drinking herb tea, making trousers at home for a living, waiting for Shug, and smoking a little “reefer” when she wants to feel the spirit.