“The Color Purple” Turns 33 Today – Sisterhood Is the Primary Message of the Film

The first time I remember seeing “The Color Purple” was during elementary school. My Black, female art mentor was playing it while I walked in and out of the room it was playing in. I was moving around to let off the steam of the school day, and also soothe the discomfort from the harshness of the movie. I thought it was something that I shouldn’t be watching. The film, with its marigold and lavender sunsets, hand games, and flower-filled fields, overflowed with hatred towards women. This would’ve normally made it unwatchable for me. What I didn’t realize were the implications present throughout the movie. “The Color Purple” is a story of how imperative sisterhood can be, and how Black women continue to make each other feel safe in dark times.

“The Color Purple” turns 33 today. It is one of the most quoted movies in the Black community, even though the events are trivialized and taken as a joke. The Steven Spielberg directed film was nominated for eleven, yes, eleven, Academy Awards in 1986. It won none of them, sparking a longterm, much-needed conversation about how institutions value Black art, and also the stories of Black women.

This anniversary also comes at an interesting time. Alice Walker, author of the book the film was based on, is (as of Sunday) under fire for her support of anti-Semitic literature. This could be seen as a detractor from her work, as we tend to demand that Black thinkers eternally consider all historically disrespected and oppressed people. The fact remains though that her fourth novel is one of the most well-respected contemporary stories ever penned.

“Celie is so withdrawn and defeated, she thinks Harpo beating Sofia will produce similar results.”

What stands out to me the most in “The Color Purple” is that Black men fail Black women consistently. They don’t just fail them – they take searing irons of hatred and brand the women with irrevocable scars. Many of the film’s male characters sexually abuse girl children (including ones in their family), and then beat, cheat on, and emotionally maim the central Black female characters. The trauma that the majority of the women face ultimately shapes them. Celie is so withdrawn and defeated, she thinks Harpo beating Sofia will produce similar results. Sofia has had to fight familial rapists her entire life, so she has no room for softness. The women come to realize that they cannot trust these men, and therefore have to try to find comfort in one another.

I noticed that the closeness between each female character (Nettie and Celie, Celie and Shug, Celie and Sofia) is threatened by a male presence, either directly or indirectly. Nettie and Celie are separated by their stepfather and Mister. Celie and Shug cannot leave for Memphis because Mister catches Celie packing. Celie’s taught misogyny creates a riff between her and Sofia. I believe the weak, menacing men knew the power of female bonds. They realized that they wouldn’t be able to control these women if they had literal and figurative sisters to teach them their own power.

“Queer intimacy taught Celie that not all physical touch was violent.”

One of the film’s highlights was Celie’s queer love affair. It was yet another example of the women of “The Color” showing up for each other and making the world a bit more livable.  Cliffsnotes reveals “[t]he significance of Celie and Shug’s sexual relationship is that Celie learns how to be proud of her body and how to use it to enjoy sex.” In “The Color Purple”, Celie was sexually abused by multiple pedophiles over the course of her adolescence. She (understandably) grew such a deep resentment for sex that she succumbed to the idea that is was strictly for male pleasure – referring to it as [Mister] “doing his business”. Queer intimacy taught Celie that not all physical touch was violent.

“The Color Purple” is heartbreaking because although we’ve made strides in the real world, some parts of life are the same. Black women still have to deal with abuse at the hands of Black men, and white men and women. The fact that the white man and woman who were abusive in the film (the Mayor and Mrs. Millie) were tied to the government is especially poignant because still rings true today. But, like in “The Color Purple”, sisterhood keeps the women in the Black community strong. Even while we continue to be misunderstood, the Black, female alliances that we establish imbue us with unwavering hope.