'The Color Purple' 25 years later: From controversy to classic

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“You told Harpo to beat me!”

“I loves Harpo. God knows I do, but I’ll kill him dead fo’ I let him beat me”

“You sho’ is ugly”

These are just a few of the oft-quoted lines from film version of The Color Purple. In fact, it’s not at all that uncommon to find black people who can literally recite the entire film line by line. Today The Color Purple is such a beloved film in the black community that it’s hard to fathom that it wasn’t loved by everybody when it was released 25 years ago on December 18, 1985. But times don’t necessarily change all that much.

Just like the recent For Colored Girls, black men were among The Color Purple’s loudest critics. Basically there were black men who saw the film as only a story about a poor black woman in Georgia who was molested and impregnated as a child by the man she believed to be her father and later beaten and tormented by her much older husband Mister. They claimed that The Color Purple was an assault on the black male image. “It is degrading to black men…makes us all look like wife beaters and rapists,” one black man told the Los Angeles Times.

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The now largely forgotten Tony Brown, who, for years, hosted Tony Brown’s Journal, a black issues-oriented program once seen weekly on PBS, even dedicated an entire show to denouncing the film. Brown called The Color Purple “the most racist depiction of black men since The Birth of a Nation and the most anti-Black family film of the modern film era.”

Courtland Milloy, who scathingly criticized For Colored Girls in The Washington Post, did the same when The Color Purple came out. Milloy, as paraphrased by feminist academic Jacqueline Bobo in her 1988 critical essay “Black Women’s Responses to The Color Purple” in the journal Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, insisted that “some black women would enjoy seeing black men shown as ‘brutal bastards.’” At the film’s premiere in Los Angeles, black men even mounted a protest.

Even before the film’s release, there was controversy about a white director, Steven Spielberg, directing the film. While some objected to Spielberg specifically, others lamented that it even took a white director of his caliber to get a film largely about black women made in the first place. Then there were those, black women included, who objected to the lesbian relationship (albeit significantly watered down from the book) between lead characters Celie and Shug. Largely positive reviews and stellar box office performance didn’t end the controversy either, especially after The Color Purple garnered an impressive 11 Academy Award nominations, but won none.

So 25 years later, it’s interesting to see not that Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, who both made their film debut with The Color Purple, even garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively, as well as Danny Glover, who had just appeared in three films before his starring role as Mister, went on to become big crossover stars. With the debate surrounding films like last year’s Precious and this year’s For Colored Girls, it’s most interesting to see what things have not changed and how time truly is nostalgia’s friend.

On November 15, when Oprah aired a reunion show for The Color Purple, the mood was very warm and congratulatory, with little time spent on the debates that surrounded the film at the time. Quincy Jones, who produced the film, shared his story of defying the odds in Hollywood to get the film made in the first place. Alice Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel, which was published in 1982, wasn’t even present. During the heyday of controversy over The Color Purple, Walker was often called upon to explain her decision to endorse the film as well as her reaction to it and, considering that it all started with her vision, her absence on Oprah’s reunion show was unfortunate.

Because The Color Purple grossed nearly $100 million domestically, much analysis, such as that provided by the aforementioned Jacqueline Bobo, focused on why the film resonated so well with African-American women. In many ways, such efforts parallel those determined to explain why Tyler Perry’s films also play so well to black female audiences.

“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,” explained noted African American historian Donald Bogle on Phil Donahue’s The Color Purple show in 1986.

That not-so-secret formula hasn’t been lost on the often criticized filmmaker Tyler Perry. Twenty-five years later, there are still black women who want to see themselves on the big screen in significant roles and Perry has made a fortune giving them what they want. So, ultimately, the success of The Color Purple in publishing, Hollywood and on Broadway only proves that, in dreaming a world, black women can indeed be in the center. And, that perhaps is The Color Purple’s most enduring legacy.