In this essay I will be discussing the film The Color Purple, which was directed by Stephen Spielberg. I will discuss the film in relation to Womanism and the female voice, I will also discuss the film and its impact and representations in contrast to other cultural texts such as The Warrior Woman and She’s Gotta Have It I will discuss the impact that he film had and its importance in relation to black female consciousness. I will argue that it was one of the most influential and prevalent texts of its time, and continues to be of significance to black females due to the ways in which they are represented throughout the film.
The film The Color Purple was based on the book by Alice Walker, the subject of which is a young, quiet young girl, who is abused and undereducated, the story follows and documents her progression into womanhood through a series of letters to both God and her sister. The protagonist, Celie, is raped and subsequently impregnated the man she believes to be her father, who gives away their children. Following this Celie is married to a man referred to throughout most of the book as Mister, who assumes the role of abuser, both mentally and physically. As the story progresses it focuses on Celie’s relationships with the women around her, especially her sister Nettie, Mister’s daughter in law Sofia, Mister’s mistress Shug and Speak (Mary Agnes) (Bobo, 1995: p62-3).
The film The Color Purple was released in 1986, four years after the book (1982) and was incredibly popular, as Bobo points out the film ‘earned $95 million in the first year of its release…the production expenses were only $15million. A film is considered successful if it grosses two and a half times its productions costs. Despite the extended and vociferous criticisms of the film…there was never a drop in audience consumption’ (Bobo 1995: p61). However the critics of the film were less fond of the film at its time of release, many criticised Spielberg’s ability to understand and grasp the nature and subject of the film, both as a man but more importantly as a white man, ‘his previous films were escapist fare and The Color Purple was beyond his sensibilities, for these critics it was simpler to cast the film aside as falling within the pantheon of films that have represented black people in a derogatory manner…its productions history and style are reminiscent of early films such as Hallelujah (1929)’ (Bobo, 1995: p62), this was not an uncommon sentiment, as Mark Anthony Neal States, he was ‘best known at the time for films like "Indiana Jones" and "E.T.," not everyone was sold on Spielberg as director’ (Neal, 2005: Online). There was also much criticism regarding Spielbergs capability to understand Black female history and therefore accuratly present a story about black women through the eyes of a black woman ‘Stephen Spielberg’s inability to understand the historical cinditions that shaped Alice Walker’s themes and characters produced an exploration of black women’s life that not only is simplistic but in fact overlooks the efforts of previous black writers’ (Bono, 1995: p73).
Although the film provoked much debate, one group of people that tended to praise the film were black women. When writing The Color Purple what Alice Walker did was provide stereotypical representations of black women and alter them, making them more positive. ‘Alice Walker continues the talk of revising images of black women by taking the familiar and negatively constructed sexual images and imbuing them with power’ (Bobo, 1995: p65). One of the ways in which she does this is through her portrayal of the character Sofia. Sofia has distinctly black features, is incredibly buxom, and does not conform to any European stereotype of attractive. In addition to her appearance she is strong willed, stubborn and a hard worker, often appearing very unfeminine, Spielberg honoured this representation in his adaptation and as a result both author and director were ‘able to attack two aspects of the nineteenth century ideology of the cult of true womanhood: that black women were not the ideal, being neither fair not frail, and that their sexual desires were uncontrollable’ (Bobo, 1995: p65). Bobo states that ‘The film…incited a face-off between Black feminist critics and Black male reviewers. The women defend the work, or more precisely, defend Alice Walker's book and the right of the film to exist. Black males vehemently denounce both works and cite the film's stereotypical representations’ (Bobo, 1988: Online).
In terms of sexual desire a pivotal point in the representation of women can be seen in Sofia’s discussion with Celie about her sex with Harpo (Mister’s son). She describes how, as a result of his wishes to control and dominate her she no longer has any sexual desires for him, that the attraction and fun has been lost, he continues to explain that the worst part is that Harpo fails to notice her lack of desire or enjoyment and merely continues in his own search for sexual gratification. There were problems in attempting to addressing the ideology surrounding black women however, this was particularly the case in creating a strong female character ‘who was not a perpetuation of the negatively perceived fire-breathing Amazon’ (Bobo, 1995: p66). Alice Walker and Stephen Spielberg are successful however, in both the creation and portrayal of Sofia, a large, strong willed, hard working women who is still sexually appealing to the men in the story (Harpo and Buster) ‘Sofia become a forceful presence whose intolerance for any form of domination is seen in a favourable light, she is a strong character who fights with her fists if necessary’ (Bobo, 1995: p66). Sofia is an example of a contemporary character, successfully created by Walker in the 1980’s, she acknowledges that the ideal of fair, and overtly feminine was no longer acceptable nor plausible as an illustration of a black heroine, ‘…thus although Sofia’s physical presence and manner of rebellion are much more omnipresent and overt, her story brings to mind battles by earlier black women…’ (Bobo, 1995: p66).
Celie’s character is seen throughout the text as relatively weak, especially in comparison to the strong characteristics that are to be seen in Shug and Sofia. ‘We see the young Celie used as a packhorse…she is loaded down with her belongings ostensibly symbolizing a mule, in the sense that Zora Neale Hurston wrote of the status of black women…’ (Bobo, 1995: p72-3). Celie’s redeeming characteristics lie in her success in overcoming the many obstacles that lie before her, however timidly she may confront most of them.
Shug can also be seen as a positive representation of women within the text, often read as a sexually liberated black female who refuses to let men dominate her, she is a secure black woman who lives her life according to the dictates of her value system’ (Bobo, 1995: 69). Shugs confident character and shameless demeanour is often praised, she ‘has a carefully thought out system of values. She lives her life according to her standards and is free to do so because she is not dependant on anyone emotionally or economically’ (Bobo, 1995: p70-1). However Bobo also argues that while this may be true of the character in Alice Walker’s book, it is not so in the film and claims that the films characters central concern is the approval of her father. To illustrate this point Bobo compares a scene in its book and film form, she discusses a scene where Celie is bathing a naked Shug and asks about her children, in the book Shug replies that she does not miss anything, whereas in the film she explains that her children are with their grandparents because she ‘never knowed a child to come out right unless there’s a man around’ (Bono, 1995: p70). Bobo continues to criticize the film, saying that it ‘resurrects previous characters form mainstream media and gives them modern day gloss. Shug becomes licentious cabaret singer, Sofia the castrating Amazon and Celie the orphan Annie.
The bulk of the negative criticism regarding both the film and the book came from black males, who believe that ‘black men are portrayed unnecessarily as harsh and brutal…that black people as a whole are depicted as perverse, sexually wanton, and irresponsible’ (Bobo, 1988: Online). There were those that felt so strongly about the portrayal of black men, that they prioritised it over their issues with the choice of director, As Neal explains ‘that a white director -- and one that specialized in fantasy at that -- helmed The Color Purple, was arguably a secondary thought for those who felt that Walker had colluded with "White Hollywood" to further demonise black men’ (2005: Online). Although most of the male characters could be seen a negatively represented, physically and mentally abusing the women, belittling them, incestuously raping them, it is for the progression and positive image of the female characters that this is done, if there were no adversity, the female characters would be unable to overcome it. Bobo discusses one woman’s response to the film and stated that ‘she knew many Celies when she was growing up in Sunflower County, Mississippi…her mother and her aunts had all been beaten and brutalized by their husbands and that for her, the movie “just lifted a burden …Black women should not be sacrificed for Black men's pride. Let the film roll”’ (Bobo, 1988: Online). Bobo continues to talk about the conflict regarding viewers responses to the film and quotes Donald Bogle who says that ‘for Black viewers there is a schizophrenic reaction. You're torn in two. On the one hand you see the character of Mister and you're disturbed by the stereotype. Yet, on the other hand, and this is the basis of the appeal of that film for so many people, is that the women you see in the movie, you have never seen Black women like this put on the screen before. I'm not talking about what happens to them in the film, I'm talking about the visual statement itself. When you see Whoopi Goldberg in close-up, a loving close-up, you look at this woman, you know that in American films in the past, in the 1930s, 1940s, she would have played a maid. She would have been a comic maid. Suddenly, the camera is focusing on her and we say I've seen this woman some place, I know her’ (Bobo, 1988: Online). This is a far cry from Tony Browns claims that ‘the most racist depiction of Black men since The Birth of a Nation and the most anti-Black family film of the modem film era’ (in (Bobo, 1988: Online).
The Color Purple is often discussed in relation to Womanism, as Gunde states ‘. This perspective is often used as a means for analyzing Black Women’s literature, as it marks the place where race, class, gender, and sexuality intersect’ (2007: Online). Womanism is a term coined by Walker herself, who says that ‘Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender’ (Alice Walker in Gunde, 2007: Online). Gunde goes on to explain this by saying that ‘Womanism is a feminist term coined by Alice Walker. It is a reaction to the realization that “feminism” does not encompass the perspectives Black women. It is a feminism that is “stronger in color”, nearly identical to “Black Feminism”. However, Womanism does not need to be prefaced by the word “Black”, the word automatically concerns black women.’ (Gunde, 2007: Online). What is meant by this is that Walker’s Womanism also addresses the race and class issues that are not inherent in typical white feminism. Another thing that Womanism does is ‘It seeks to acnowledge and praise the sexual power of Black women while recognizing a history of sexual violence’ (Gunde, 2007: Online). Womanism is also interesting and unique in the way that it respects and honors the esperiences of black women, and acknowledges their strength ‘it recognizes that women are survivors in a world that is oppressive on multiple platforms, it seeks to celebrate the ways in which women negotiate these oppressions in their individual lives’ (Gunde, 2007: Online). It is clear to see how womanism could be used in a discussion of the film and its characters, with its intense debate regarding portrayal of genders, as well as its poignant representation of the women’s struggle against their various oppresors and adversities, particularly those of a sexual nature.
Cheung compares The Color Purple to The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and states that ‘The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior exhibit parallel narrative strategies. The respectively black and Chinese American protagonists work their way from speechlessness to eloquence by breaking through the constraints of sex, race, and language’(1988: Online) she goes on to rfer to Celie’s relationships with other women and her letter writing and how this is paralled by Kingston’s characters ‘the heroines turn …to female models for inspiration.... initially unable to speak, they develop distinctive voices by registering their own unspoken grief on paper and, more important, by recording and emulating the voices of women from their respective ethnic communities’ (Cheung, 1988: Online). Cheung also discusses the female voice, prevelant in the Color Purple and key to its popularity among its black female audience, she states that ‘through these testimonies, each written in a bicultural language, Walker and Kingston reveal the obstacles and resources peculiar to minority women. Subverting patriarchal literary traditions by reclaiming a mother tongue that carries a rich oral tradition (of which women are guardians) the authors artfully coordinate the tasks of breaking silence, acknowledging female influence, and redefining while preserving ethnic characteristics’ (Cheung, 1988: Online).
Another cultural text that is more often associated with The Color Purple is She’s Gotta Have It. She’s Gotta Have It was produced by Spike Lee in the mid Eighties in response to Alice Walker’s and Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple ‘inspired and driven by what he saw as Hollywood patronizing black issues and the desire to see a world he recognised on screen (Anon, UD: Online). Bell hooks comapres the responses to both the films and talks about how both films sparked intense debate about feminist matters, she states that ‘The Color Purple evoked more discussion among black folks of feminist issues (sexism, freedom of sexual expression, male violence against women, etc.) than any other theoretical or polemical work by feminist scholars. She’s Gotta Have It generated a similar response’ (Hooks, 1996: p229). A film about a black woman (Nola Darling) and her multiple lovers it caused considerable controversy at the time, as Bell Hooks also notes ‘what a stir that picture caused. At the time, it was really remarkable that a black male filmmaker was percieved as offering a vision in cinema of a sexually liberated woman. This film generated…discussions of the politics of race and gender of rape and violence against black women…’(Hooks, 1996: p4).
There was a significant amount of debate surrounding the film when it was released, and as Hooks points out, it raised a lot of questions ‘was the films a “woman’s story”? Did the film depict a radically new image of black female sexuality? Can a man really tell a woman’s story?…Is Nola Darling (film’s main character) a liberated woman or just a whore?’ (Hooks, 1996: p228). These questions cannot be so eaisly asked of The Color Purple, there were no questions raised regarding whose voice, nor whose sotry it was, The Color Purple is a woman’s story told by a woman (reagrdless of the gender of the director. However, in response to the questions regarding Nola’s sexuality Hooks discusses how Nola Darling uses her body and sexuality as a reward for the men rather than having any autonomous sexual desires herself, even using it as a form of manipulation and control over the male characters, ‘men do not have to objectify Nola’s sexuality, because she objectifies it’ (Hooks, 1996: p230). Hooks also notes that Nola’s primary concern is the pleasing of her sexual partners, and despite it seeming as though she does in fact enjoy sex, that is never presented as a main concern (1996: p230). Onw of the prime concerns with She’s Gotta Have It was the attitudes of Nola’s sexual partners towards her. Nola’s various sexual partners are worried and disturbed by her sexuality, and as a result label her as both ‘abnormal’ and ‘sick’. Further problematising this, Nola’s reaction to these stereotypes and restrctions is to ‘internalise the critique and seek psychiatric help’ (Hooks, 1996: p230). It could also be argued that by acting in this way Nola is in fact ‘the projection of a stereotypical sexist notion of a sexually assertive woman – she is in fact not liberated’ (Hooks, 1996: p230). As a result of this, it would seem that Spike Lee failed to appropriatly demonstrate athe female voice and correctly portray their natures, or their struggles. The result of Lee seeing fault in both Walker’s and Spielberg’s portryal of men in The Color Purple was that he invariably and inadvertently objectified his female protaganist and demonstrated equally negative portrayals and stereotypes.
Despite the reaction of many critics, it is clear that there are several aspects of both the book and the film that made The Color Purple such an important text in terms of the reaction of its black female audience, and to black female consciousness. Its sensitive and accurate portrayal of women, and their relationships, as well as of the female voice that tells the story was integral to its success. Walker’s notion of Womanism and how that sop clearly relates to the text in all its forms, makes the text particularly important to black females, and Spike Lee’s failure to present a satisfactory response for the black men who felt they had been negatively represented merely emphasises The Color Purple’s success and impact. Hooks explains Celie’s situation throughout the story and explains where her eventual satisfaction and success lie ‘despite all the radical shifts in location, class position, etc that Celie undergoes in…The Color Purple, from her movement from object to subject to her success as a capitalist entrepreneur, Celie is re-inscribed within the context of family and domestic relations by the…end. The primary change is that those relations are no longer abusive…’ (Hooks, 1992: p47). Its assortment of strong female characters, both those that start strong and those that gain their strength as the story progresses make the text fascinating and a positive representation of women as a whole as well as more specifically of black women, and it is the creation and representations of these characters that was paramount to the success of both the book and a film, as cultural, representational texts but also as entertainment.
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