Based on the ground-breaking epistolary novel released by Alice Walker three years prior, The Color Purple was and remains to this day one of the most important pieces of American cinema. This harrowing, uplifting, bitter, joyful, and vile ode to the burden and trauma of being a Black American woman was relevant then and is, dishearteningly, largely relevant to this day.
Starting in the South in the 1930s and spanning over 30 years, The Color Purple’s central character is Celie (Desreta Jackson), a young, motherless girl, who has been raped and abused by her (presumed) father. The movie opens with the very pregnant Celie ready to give birth to her father’s second child, which (like the first) he promptly gives away, simultaneously divorcing himself from the evidence of his crime, and the accountability of having to provide for said children. When Celie’s father later sells her as a wife to Albert/Mr._(Danny Glover), she changes hands from one rapacious, misogynist, violent abuser to another. Celie’s new husband is at least a couple of decades her senior, and demands that she act as mother to his brood of children, most of whom are only a few years younger than she is.
Mr._ imagines himself some sort of victim, being “stuck” with so many children, not being able to be with Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), the woman he loves, and having to settle for such an “ugly” woman as Celie. Meanwhile, Celie is stuck cooking, cleaning, and giving every ounce of her energy to a husband and stepchildren who routinely abuse and demean her at worst and ignore her at best. Soon, Celie’s younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia) joins her at her new home, having run away from their rapacious father, and the girls are so happy to be reunited, that they at first fail to notice just how big a danger Mr._ poses. Though he fails to force himself of Nettie, Mr._ does succeed in forcing Nettie from his home, and stealing what little happiness Celie had.
Years later, Harpo (Willard Pugh), Celie’s stepson, brings home his pregnant fiancee, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), and for the first time in her life, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) encounters a defiant, opinionated, outspoken, and assertive Black woman who refuses to be anyone’ s doormat. Unfortunately for Sofia, Celie has so much internalized abuse, that she counsels Harpo to beat “disobedient” Sofia, and so begins the dysfunctional marriage between a man just as weak as his father, and a woman who refuses to go down without a fight.
Later, Shug, a jazz singer who has been Mr._’s mistress for several years, comes crashing into their home, sick from an undisclosed “nasty woman’s disease”, with an especially parched Mr._ being only too happy to give her shelter. As Shug’s stay progresses, so does Celie’s unexpected feelings for her. The two women form an unlikely and very strong friendship, one of their greatest common bonds being a man whom Celie detests and Shug loves. Celie falls deeply in love with Shug, whose feelings fluctuate between Celie and Mr._ . Shug is clearly bi/pansexual, though such terminology is never used in the film or the book. What’s also interesting is how her interest in Celie, once it is known, is imply accepted, which I highly doubt would have been the case had they been men. Shug decides to stay in town in order to protect Celie from Mr._’s abuse, and works at Harpo’s juke joint, where she sings nightly.
Sofia eventually takes her children and leaves abusive Harpo, fed up with the abuse and having to constantly fight for respect in her own home. Sofia, like most abused Black women, only becomes vulnerable to more abuse down the line. Ironically, everything that Sofia was, that she learned to be in order to help herself and preserve her dignity only hurt her more when she encountered the ultimate enemy: White people. While out with her new man and their kids, hardworking Sofia and her spotless, well-mannered children catch the eye of a Darth Becky named Miss Millie, who happens to be the Mayor’s wife. Since White supremacy has taught White people that Black bodies are public domain, the woman wastes no time in invading the personal space of Sofia’s children and touching them without consent. When this vile woman then requests that Sofia be her maid, an offer that is refused, the Mayor assaults her, provoking a fight that leaves Sofia seriously injured, disfigured, and facing 12 years in jail. When Harpo’s new woman, Squeak, tries to intervene and attempts to blackmail the sheriff into releasing Sofia, she is raped.
The trials of Sofia alone are a demonstration of how Black women are so often abused by any and everyone. White men and women alike, as well as the very Black men who, while providing no protection, want adoration, worship, loyalty, and complete control. Harpo wanted an “obedient” (read: weak) woman like Squeak, whom he could slap around without fear of retribution, but even Squeak proved stronger and more courageous than him, as she brought herself like a lamb to the slaughter to try to help the mother of his children while he did absolutely nothing. While Sofia is incarcerated, and later, when she is forced to be a maid for the very people who stole so many years of her life, it is Squeak who steps up and raises her children, showcasing simultaneously how compassionate she is, and how utterly useless Harpo is. Like father, like son.
As we follow the evolution of these women, with Celie and Squeak growing stronger over the years, in direct opposition to a world which constantly tried to break them down, and see a resigned Sofia accept the bitter portion served to her, we see how these women saved themselves, and each other, when the men in their lives either couldn’t or wouldn’t help, often being the source of much of their suffering. Later, when Shug helps Celie uncover letters from Nettie that Mr._ has been hiding from her for years, Celie finally finds the courage to leave his house of pain and make her own mark on the world.
In a moving epic about the hardships of life, the intersectionality of being Black, poor, and woman in a world which loathes all of these, and the small joys to be had in knowledge of self and the community of your sisters, The Color Purple breaks your heart and mends it again a thousand times over.
I give this one 5 stars.