Alice Walker
Alice Walker; drawing by David Levine

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.

The Color Purple is a didactic narrative, and as such it puts Walker closer to Harriet Beecher Stowe than to Hurston. Like Stowe’s, Walker’s work shows a world divided between the chosen (black women) and the unsaved, the “poor miserable critter” (black men), between the “furnace of affliction” and a “far-off, mystic land of…miraculous fertility.” In fact, Walker’s many collections of poems and short stories, and her novels, including The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and Meridian (1976), constitute a body of inspirational literature for the black woman.

Many of The Color Purple’s themes are examined in her previous novels—the deep South, the black family, social change, the violence of black men toward black women. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in which the suffering of some of the wives is extreme, the violence is partly understood as frustration with the sharecropping system. In Meridian, which is set in the South during the civil rights movement, the martyrdom is more psychological. Physical and psychological suffering merge in The Color Purple, and the righteous—black women—are called upon to heal themselves and, by their example, their people. Celie does not turn to the church but to the temple of herself for salvation.

The sense of mission pervading The Color Purple comes from Walker’s view of the black woman’s history as a legacy of “creativity” that found expression only in such chores as gardening, cooking, quilt making. As Walker said in an essay in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983), the unsung heroines were black women,

whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. They stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body, so dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope. In the selfless abstractions their bodies became to the men who used them, they became more than “sexual objects,” more than mere women: they became “Saints.”

It is debatable whether black women in history were wholly inarticulate or whether their condition was an utter mystery to them. Curiously enough, Walker’s role as champion of the victims of the past places her in a position of cultural arrogance not unlike that of white missionaries to black Africa.

Walker has been hailed as a developer of the “womanist process,” as an “apologist for black women,” as a writer whose fiction “has called together a meeting of Black women.”1 Jane Miller’s reading of the novel in her recent Women Writing About Men is as representative as it is telling. The Color Purple is an effort to “rewrite that history which has omitted to mention the Black woman as a woman or as a Black person.” It is no less than “a story of women’s rebellion, a regenerative and affirming turning of the tables on men, whose brutality toward women may be understood but must also be resisted.”2 Miller’s praise, in its willingness to embrace Walker’s polemic rather than examine her text, illustrates the problem black writers still have with white critics.

Yet much of the appeal of The Color Purple does not lie in its text, but, through representing the black woman’s experience in the popular feminist vocabulary, in its power as a symbol of the reconciliation between black women and white women in the feminist movement. Paula Giddings, in her absorbing study, When and Where I Enter observed that,

[one] disturbing aspect of the women’s movement was that its rise coincided with the deterioration of the Black movement. By the early seventies, assassinations, subversion by domestic intelligence, and internal squabbles had left virtually every Black group in disarray. Now it appeared that the predominantly White women’s movement was going to reap the benefits that the Black movement had sown. Comparing the status of women to that of Blacks was particularly upsetting. That White women would characterize themselves as “niggers,” and even as a minority deserving special favor, enraged many Black women.3

Alice Walker herself came of age during the debate in the Sixties over whether black women were the punching bags of black men. But Walker is so intent on investing drudgery with romantic properties that she loses sight of the fact that black women simply had to work. The black woman entered the lower professions faster than her white counterpart and this was crucial in a society that kept black men out of the labor force. Indeed the valor of the black woman lay in her history as a wage earner, in what Angela Davis once called “the deformed equality of equal oppression.” “If we have today…over a billion dollars of accumulated goods, who shall say how much of it has been wrung from the hearts of servant girls and washerwomen and women toilers of the fields?” Du Bois asked in Darkwater in 1920.


Once upon a time the “people of color” in the United States, the “colored population,” formerly “Africans,” or “free Africans,” began to refer to themselves as “Negroes,” partly as a result of a campaign led by Booker T. Washington to make the term acceptable.4 In the not so distant past calling somebody “black” was grounds for a fight, and, of course, these days everybody’s “black,” all of which is to say that nothing speaks of the shifting sands of black history, that thing of excavation, more eloquently than the quest for words blacks have used to name themselves. Yesterday’s folkway can be today’s wrong move.

Then, too, Langston Hughes’s “Beale Street Love” reads very differently in the present cultural climate than it probably did at the height of the Depression when it was written:

Is a brown man’s fist
With hard knuckles
Crushing the lips,
Blackening the eyes—
Hit me again,
Says Clorinda.

That the civil rights movement was deteriorating while American feminism was rising had a strong effect on Afro-American literature. Black women writers seemed to find their voices and audiences, and black men seemed to lose theirs. Black women’s concerns had earlier belonged to what was considered the private, rather than the public, as if the kitchen range could not adequately represent the struggle. But it turned out that the concerns of the kitchen were big enough to encompass the lore of struggle and survival. The black woman’s story of family, community, so rich in gossip, language, and alive with the romance of discovery, was a welcomed departure from highly publicized apocalyptic writings, such as Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1967). Audiences were getting tired of black writers telling off whites. Hence, the tremendous national embrace of Roots (1977). With the exception of, say, Wesley Brown’s Tragic Magic (1979) or George Davis’s Coming Home (1975), not much has been made of Vietnam, which is the black man’s true subject.

Ishmael Reed’s most recent novel, Reckless Eyeballing, is in part a comic rebuttal to this work by black women since the Seventies, like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1977), as well as Alice Walker’s novels. These feminist works shared a mood in which black women began to question “myths,” like whether freedom was to come first for the black man, or whether black women felt guilty because of the “emasculation” of the black male. Reckless Eyeballing is a satirical narrative that mocks racial and American sexual taboos in the manner of George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Chester Himes’s Pinktoes (1961). It is the story of Ian Ball, a black playwright who has been “sex-listed,” and who is trying to get back into favor with theatrical power brokers by writing a militant play for women. Ball may also be the “Flower Phantom,” an intruder who shaves the heads of black women who, in his opinion, have collaborated with the enemies of black men.

The premise is a little nasty, even for Reed, but his gift is for the outrageous, for giving vivid expression to cultural controversies very much in the air. When one young black detective complains of a black woman playwright, “She makes out like we’re all wife beaters and child molesters,” an older black (male) playwright says:

It’s these white women who are carrying on the attack against black men today, because they struck a deal with white men who run the country. You give us women the jobs, the opportunities, and we’ll take the heat off you and put it on Mose, is the deal they struck. They have maneuvered these white boys who run the country, but they have to keep the persecution thing up in order to win new followers, and so they jump on po’ Mose.

The question is whether Reed has uncovered a rift or a rivalry between black men and black women. His characters compete to have their plays produced. In one scene Ian Ball is in a meeting with the white feminist producer Becky French and her protégé, the black feminist playwright Treemonisha Smarts. They are discussing his play No Good Man, which he has written according to the feminist line. It should be remembered that “reckless eyeballing” was an expression used in the South to describe a black man’s glance—which a white woman could accuse him of and get him lynched. Treemonisha Smarts says:

“Tell him what you want to do with his play. She wants to change your play so that the mob victim is just as guilty as the mob. She wants to drop Cora Mae’s line about their being in the same boat. That’s the collective guilt bullshit that’s part of this jive New York intellectual scene. She wants you to change the whole meaning of the play. She’s saying that the man who reckless eyeballed Cora Mae was just as guilty as the men who murdered him….” Treemonisha and Becky were exchanging stares that were so dense he felt that they were probably looking right through each other.

He thought of them in the same households all over the Americas while the men were away on long trips to the international centers of the cotton or sugar markets. The secrets they exchanged in the night when there were no men around, during the Civil War in America when the men were in the battlefield and the women were in the house. Black and white, sisters and half-sisters. Mistresses and wives. There was something going on here that made him, a man, an outsider, a spectator, like someone who’d stumbled into a country where people talked in sign language and he didn’t know the signs.

This is, among other things, a paranoid update on the theme of the conspiratorial intimacy between Simon Legree and Cassie.

Reed’s novels, among them The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), are meant to provoke. Though variously described as a writer in whose work the black picaresque tradition has been extended, as a misogynist or an heir to both Hurston’s folk lyricism and Ellison’s irony, he is, perhaps because of this, one of the most underrated writers in America. Certainly no other contemporary black writer, male or female, has used the language and beliefs of folk culture so imaginatively, and few have been so stinging about the absurdity of American racism.

Interestingly, Reckless Eyeballing is one of Reed’s most accessible, even realistic, works. Perhaps this has something to do with the constraints imposed by the subject matter. But it is also very different from other fictions that approach the subject of sexuality and black life, works in the naturalistic tradition like Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), or James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962). In these books every psychological brutality could be described so long as it conformed to the sense that even as a fiction, it was part of a documentary truth that reached back to the slave narratives. It is this high ground that Alice Walker herself attempts to claim. But it must be said that she is playing a safe hand, given the acceptability of feminism and the historical conditioning that has the country afraid of black men. Reed’s subtext might be that the rape of black women and the lynching of black men are part of the same historical tragedy.


Zora Neale Hurston was born in an all-black town, Eatonville, Florida, not the “black backside” of a white city. She drew from it her haunting depiction of a black community in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The white world is assumed. Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981) offers a similar all-black town; Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1976) doesn’t even seem to have a white side of town. The white world outside is a given, while black writers paid strict attention to their slices of neighborhood and street. Though it won’t do as a convention of black writing to restate how awful whitey is, the present trend toward highly insular stories to show that black culture has its own life too often means that the novelist writes about struggling black families without even mentioning why it is they have to struggle in the first place. Indeed, for The Color Purple to have been true to history, it would have had to show that black women were as threatened by white men as by black men, if not more. In fact, one of the most frequently cited incentives that black men gave for migration from the South after World War I was “the degraded status of their womenfolk.”5

Alice Walker is listed as a consultant in the credits to The Color Purple, and even if she didn’t have a hotline to the cutting room she should have told Spielberg that what bothered most blacks about the Great Depression was the poverty. In the movie, no one works, but no one goes hungry either. The land is bountiful in accordance with the Word. Celie’s family lives as comfortably as the Waltons, and in one scene the camera swims in for a close-up, pans across sizzling skillets of down-home this, southern that. The display has absolutely nothing to do with an attempt to depict the black middle class. It is meant as a sign of hospitality in a benign South where dreams are like promissory notes. A sweeping bird’s-eye view of Celie’s picturesque farmhouse and emerald green pastures lets us know that Spielberg’s Georgia is not far from Oz.

The high-tech jumpiness of this weeping comedy betrays a certain unease with the subject. Though it is little more than the old-fashioned Hollywood tale of virtue’s triumph over villainy, evidently the tar brush makes all the difference. No one scene in this big extravaganza lasts very long. There is so much fast tracking and rolling hoopla, so many match cuts, cross cuts, and allusions to other films that the audience is never invited to get close to the figures on the screen. It is like a game of three-card monte in which the spectators give up trying to follow the cards and just watch the fancy hand work.

Celie and Nettie are shown at play in the opening scene. Their heads are scarcely visible as they skip to and fro in a deep patch of what looks like loosestrife. Spielberg’s camera dollies parallel. Their pa stops the game and roughly calls them out of the field, at which point we see that Celie is pregnant. The camera has sneaked up on the girls, so to speak, and this atmosphere of voyeurism never goes away. Walker’s heroine is no better off than a dray horse, but in Spielberg’s film her on-camera trials are sexual, not material. “On top of me” and “doing his business” are frequent refrains. Often the black men in the film are shot from below, in strange light, at weird angles, which makes them appear particularly sinister.

The cruelty of the black man, like the affair between Shug and Celie, is reduced to little more than an occasion for titillation. Though the relationship is more “advanced” than, say, that of the black woman in the tear-jerker Imitation of Life (1934), in which Louise Beavers tells Freddi Washington to meet her cross halfway because it will be easier to bear, there is something equally sentimental about Shug, the good fairy, hovering around Miss Celie’s “button.”

Yet we heard from the Phil Donahue Show one day to the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour another day that the movie reinforced stereotypes, that blacks resented the stereotypes, that discussion groups had been organized to help black men cope with the terror that black women could support each other, that the film put a lighted match to dry grass, that most of the film’s audience was white anyway, that some thought blacks were just being touchy, that others hadn’t had such a good jag since Scarlett O’Hara vowed she’d never go hungry. But it’s not so much whether Spielberg has dishonored Walker’s characters, or whether Walker has slandered black men to begin with, as that Spielberg has created a South in which racism plays no part whatever. White people come into the novel of The Color Purple only through a subplot which involves Celie’s stepdaughter-in-law. Sofia, a tough customer from a family of Amazons, is imprisoned for “sassing” the mayor’s wife.

She say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

Sofia say, Hell no.

The mayor intervenes, slaps Sofia, and she knocks him down, at which point police attack her, crack her skull, her ribs, “tear her nose loose on one side,” and “blind her in one eye.” After years behind bars, her probation entails working for the mayor’s wife after all.

Walker perhaps meant to work out through the contrast between the outspoken Sofia and the meek Celie the notion that a masochistic turning of the cheek isn’t the only mission she has in mind for black women, and to say, too, that on the way to loving themselves black women don’t have to love white children: “White folks is a miracle of affliction.” In the film this subplot is muffled and reduced to comedy, as if racism were not an institutionalized fact of Celie’s life, but only the arbitrary expression of someone’s character. A crowd gathers around Sofia and she gets bopped on the head with the end of a pistol. She falls out in the street with her bloomers showing.

Elsewhere whites make cameo appearances, dashing from off-screen to wag fingers at the downtrodden Celie in the dry goods store—“You want something, gal?” They scowl and are redfaced, but, like Wanda Gag illustrations of suspicious villagers in Tales from Grimm, they can’t harm her. This leaves a vacuum which Spielberg is obliged to fill with spectacle.

Since something unfair had to have happened back then, Spielberg has only the relentless brutishness of the black men to rely on. The scene in which Mister ejects Nettie from his house is accomplished with an abundance of screaming, shrieking, dragging down the porch, kicking in the dust, and stone pelting. Had he tied her to the tracks the tone would not have been violated. (Quincy Jones’s score is equal to the corn.) It scarcely matters that the only time a black man is seen engaged in any labor is when Harpo, Celie’s stepson, fixes the roof of the juke joint he plans to open. Twice Spielberg perches him on the roof and twice Harpo falls through. (Nor does it matter that rock’n’roll is sung in the juke joint in the Thirties instead of the blues.)

In American popular culture today anything black immediately alerts its audience to get ready for catharsis because soul, release of emotion, is, as everyone knows, the major contribution of black people to national life. The curtain goes up and everyone is ready to dance, sing, and cry all over. Spielberg even goes so far as to invent for Shug a preacher father whose forgiveness she craves. The preacher father is grafted on to the script not just as a way to rehabilitate the sinner, but to get the camera inside a black church because what would a black film be without a climactic scene of getting religion? Shug, stricken by the holy ghosts, leads the gin swillers out of the juke joint, down the sun-crossed road, and straight up to her father’s pulpit, a scene complete with the entire ensemble working out on a contemporary gospel tune; mostly, one feels, so that Spielberg will have his King Vidor moment, his quote from Hallelujah. It doesn’t matter that the flashes of Africa that accompany voice-over excerpts from Nettie’s letters look as though they were shot at Busch Gardens, Florida. All that matters is that in the end Celie, older, wiser, hobbles down her porch Miss Jane Pittman–style to welcome her sister and her long lost children who are swathed in robes of purple.

Walker’s literary clichés meet so well with Spielberg’s visual clichés because both are derived from the same stereotypes. Ridiculous pickaninnies, stern matriarchs, big brutes, noble sinners, feeble-minded ladies, together with a host of other conveniently desexualized images, have been part of the American popular imagination since the abolitionist movement, and it is not so much that Spielberg has revived these stock types as that he has reminded us of how present these heirlooms of folly still are, how quickly and comfortably summoned, how great the pressure is to conform to the familiar, the recognizable. Were this not a big-budget bonanza with historical pretensions would the black actors seem to be portraying blacks as whites expect them to be portrayed, down to the mugging and bug eyes? Perhaps Spike Lee’s generation will escape these burdens and discover the freedom to be ordinary.

This Issue

January 29, 1987