The Color Purple is a 1982 novel by American author Alice Walker. The book was adapted into a 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The book has also been made into a Broadway musical that was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2006, as well as a radio serial adaptation for BBC Radio 4. It was recently announced that a film adaptation of the musical is in development that will be produced by Spielberg, Winfrey, Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders.
The Color Purple is structured as a series of letters written mostly by Celie, a young uneducated Black teenager in the South at the beginning of the twentieth century. The story follows her over 30 years through motherhood, marriage and claiming her independence from society’s expectations of her. She is treated as a commodity: a daughter to obey, a woman to endure being sexualized and bear children, a wife to keep house and cook, a worker to harvest the fields, and a Black woman to put aside her own needs and yield to everyone else’s. “I know white people never listen to colored, period. If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do.” Over the course of the book, Celie realizes that she has self worth and dignity, and like all human beings, her life has inherent value: “I’m pore [sic], I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook… But I’m here.”
The author uses color to signal various character experiences, and purple is mentioned several times in relationship to Celie. She idolizes Shug Avery, an independent woman who sings in clubs, wears nice clothes and makes her own money. When Celie is shopping for a new dress, she tries to find something other than the dark, boring colors that are offered. “I think what color Shug Avery would wear. She like a queen to me so I say to Kate, Somethin purple, maybe a little red in it too. But us look an look and no purple.”
Eventually Shug and Celie build a lifelong friendship, and it’s Shug who helps Celie realize that many of the rules enforced by the church are for the purpose of controlling and shaming people (especially women) rather than encouraging joyful worship. She begins to understand that the beauty of God’s creation is everywhere, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying and marveling in these small pleasures. “I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.” When Celie finally steps out as her own person, without a man to dominate her, she makes no secret of the fact that she is done setting herself on fire to keep everyone else warm; Celie is no longer responsible for anyone else’s happiness but her own. “I thought you was finally happy, he say. What wrong now? 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 just the welcome mat I need.”
There are only a few changes between Alice Walker’s novel and the movie adaptation, although nothing to drastically change the original plot. In the movie, Celie knows that her children have gone to live with a preacher, although in the book she does not know if they are even alive until she meets them suddenly in town years later. The film does a great job of showing the strong bond between Celie and Nettie, and Celie’s inner monologue largely retains the spirit and voice of her letters in the book.
It can be extremely difficult to adapt an epistolary novel into a screenplay, and by all accounts, Menno Meyjes did a fantastic job on one of his first feature film projects – the 1985 film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In fact, The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards that year (including the major ones that garner media attention like Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song) but won zero, emphasizing how few Black people have won accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929. The Color Purple is tied with 1977’s The Turning Point for most nominations without a single win.
In 1988, Eddie Murphy hosted the Oscars and said, “I’m not going [to the Oscars] because they haven’t recognized black people in motion pictures… The way it’s been going, every 20 years we get one, so we ain’t due [till] about 2004.” His predictions were correct: Halle Berry won Best Actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002. While hailed as a great leap forward for racial equity in film, Berry said in 2015, “That moment really meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing” for large-scale changes in Hollywood. No Black woman has won an Oscar for Best Actress since Berry, and hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite continue to draw attention to the fact that 86% of actors in top films are white.
The book has won the following awards:
- Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1983) making Alice Walker the first Black woman to win the prize.
- Awarded the National Book Award for Fiction by the National Book Foundation (1983)
The movie has won the following awards:
- Awarded Outstanding Motion Picture and Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Whoopi Goldberg) by the NAACP Image Awards (1986)
- Awarded Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama (Whoopi Goldberg) by the Golden Globe Awards (1985) and nominated for four other awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey) and Best Original Score (Quincey Jones)
- Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography (1986)