The Gift that keeps giving: The Color Purple

The Gift that keeps giving: The Color Purple

‘The Color Purple’ was first published as a novel in 1982 by poet, novelist and feminist activist, Alice Walker. The book is in the form of an epistolatory novel (a collection of letters). The main character is Celie who writes about her life to God. Celie encounters ceaseless abuse throughout the novel beginning with sexual abuse from Alphonso which results in the birth of her two children while she is still a teenager. Celie is then married off to her husband Mister who abuses her and she also faces mistreatment from her husband’s children. Celie even states “But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive” which is a harrowing testament to the life Celie is forced to live.

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Celie then meets two larger than life women, Sofia a bulky head-strong girl who marries Harpo (Mister’s son) and Shug, a singer and Mister’s mistress who ends up having a relationship with Celie. As the narrative moves from various continents to different cities and circumstances, our gaze as the reader is constantly on Celie as we witness her growth and life experiences. The book discusses issues such as sexuality, sexual abuse, marriage, sisterhood and self esteem which make the book timeless because these issues are still a large bone of contention among people today.

Walker is a masterful writer who managed to paint a vivid picture of the experience of women in the 20th century. The text is also a powerful piece of LGBTQI+/queer literature that I believe is often overlooked. During the course of the novel, Celie enters into a relationship with Shug which seems to be a place of great refuge. Our main character also uncovers great family secrets and learns a great lesson at the end of the novel (I’m not going to spoil! Read the book!).

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In 1985 a movie was produced based on the novel. Though riddled with controversy and a great deal of protest, it has become a beloved piece of cinema history which was infamously nominated for eleven Oscars and took home none. The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg and stared Whoopi Goldberg (Celie), Margerat Avery (Shug) and Oprah Winfrey (Sofia). The movie acted as a launching pad for Goldberg’s career who ended up being a household name and one of the most recognised performers in Hollywood however, Goldberg claims that after the controversy surrounding the film, black actors found it hard to find work after ‘The Color Purple’.

The movie was also a defining moment for Spielberg who has become famous for directing blockbusters such as ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) and ‘Jaws’ (1975); tackling the toil of African-American women was met with great backlash at the time. The end product was a film that has found its way into the hearts of many and has also been criticized for being “over-sentimental”. After reading the book, the two products have glaringly differences and a number of issues in the book are not explored in the movie given the times the movie was released. The 1980s issues of sexuality were not as topical as they are now and the movie downplayed the relationship between Celie and Shug. Even Walker expressed dismay with some aspects of the book that were filmed but eventually cut out of the final movie.

In 2005, ‘The Color Purple’ would take on another form, a Broadway musical. The musical premiered to great fan fare and grossed $103 million at the time of its run. The musical takes a closer look at the relationship between Shug and Celie. The original Broadway production stared LaChanze (Celie), Elisabeth Withers (Shug) and Felicia. P. Fields (Sofia). The showstopping tunes have also enjoyed stages across the world including the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa to mention a few. When the musical was revived for Broadway in 2015 it featured Cynthia Erivo at the centre stage as Celie, Jennifer Hudson (Shug) and Danielle Brooks (Sofia). The production bagged two Tony Awards (Best Musical Revival and Best Actress in a Musical for Erivo) and a Grammy Award for the recorded cast album. And the gift just keeps giving.

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On Christmas Day 2023, a movie adaptation on the musical will premier directed by Ghanian Blitz Bazawule, a rapper, record producer, writer and filmmaker. The 1985 film came under fire because it was directed by a Caucasian director (Spielberg), it would be interesting to see how the film will look told from the perspective of a black African. Bazawule directed ‘The Burial of Kojo’ (2018) and ‘Black is King’ (2020) and has a knack for magical realism.

Kudzai Mhangwa

Kudzai Mhangwa is a writer, actor and musician. He writes poetry, plays, essays and short stories. His work has been featured on House of Mutapa, Atrebla Magazine, Ka'edi Africa, Poetry Soup and elsewhere.

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