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Literature / The Color Purple

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"I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."
Shug Avery

The Color Purple is a 1982 novel by Alice Walker that depicts the lives of African-American women in early 20th-century rural Georgia, and the problems they faced (racism, sexism, domestic violence, poverty, etc.), through the eyes of a young girl named Celie Harris. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction, and was later made into a 1985 film and a 2005 musical. A remake starring Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi was announced set for a December 2023 release.

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, and marked a turning point in his career for being his first pure drama film, a departure from the Summer Blockbusters he had grown synonymous with, and one of few films of his not scored by John Williams. It also contained the film debuts of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, and matched the record set by The Turning Point in 1977 for receiving the most Academy Award nominationsnote  without a single win.

When we first see the protagonist, Celie, she's fourteen and twice pregnant by her father. Her "Pa" then forces her into a marriage with "Mister," a widower far more interested in Celie's younger sister, Nettie. Fortunately, Celie finds friends in Mister's old flame, Shug Avery, and Sofia, the strong-willed wife of Mister's son Harpo. They help Celie find the strength to become her own woman throughout the thirty years the story takes place.

This novel and film contain examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Pa Harris beats, orders around, and sexually abuses Celie.
    • Albert also abuses his children. During an early scene he's chasing his son Harpo around, attempting to whip him with a belt.
  • Adapted Out: The mayor's daughter Eleanor Jane. She is the sole white character who gets an inkling of the injustices Sofia and other blacks have suffered. She attempts to atone for her part in the unjust treatment of Sofia by caring for Sofia's daughter Henrietta, and is the one who reunites Sofia with her family, eventually leading to the She's Back moment described below.
  • And Introducing: This marks the first film for Whoopi Goldberg.
  • The Atoner: Emphasized in the film when Mr. arranges for Celie's children to visit America.
    • Eleanor Jane, daughter of the town's mayor (who appears only in the novel), also invokes this trope as she is instrumental in reuniting Sofia and her estranged children, to help make up for the oppression her family has imposed upon African-Americans.
  • Attempted Rape: Mister tries to force himself on Celie's sister Nettie (soon after she came to live with them to escape her own father's repeated attempts). She successfully thwarts his assault with a strategically targeted blow to the nether regions.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Albert ("Mister") has nothing but contempt for Celie; when he's not ignoring her existence altogether, he's abusing her verbally, physically and spiritually. Celie for her part lives in utter fear of "Mister's" temper (or otherwise ugly impulses), eventually coming to despise him, and prays for the day she can finally escape "Mister Jail".
  • Bait-and-Switch Lesbians: Despite an explicit queer romance in the book, in the film Shug and Celie only kiss once but nothing more comes from it and they're still left paired with male lovers (Celie with her abusive spouse, Shug returning with a new male spouse).
  • Bar Brawl: An epic one is started at Harpo's jook joint, after Sofia decks Squeak.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: It's revealed that Albert's evil streak was instilled in him by his father; same goes for Harpo by Mister. In addition, Albert is in love with Shug, but is forced to live with someone he doesn't love, Celie — and Celie receives a good amount of abuse for not being Shug.
  • Bloody Handprint: Celie leaves a bloody handprint on a rock on the ground (in graphic view) after being struck by a rock hurled by one of her stepchildren.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with Celie and Nettie among violets, playing a clapping game. It ends with the two sisters playing the same clapping game when they reunite decades later.
  • Breakfast in Bed: Albert once tried to cook breakfast for Shug Avery, but he can't cook, and the breakfast he brings to Shug Avery is burned to the ashes. It's not surprising that she refuses to eat it. Later on, Celie cooks a way more yummy breakfast and brings it to bed to Shug. This time, the latter doesn't throw the tray away.
  • Calling the Old Man Out:
    • Towards the end, Eleanor Jane discovers just how her parents "convinced" Sophia to be their maid. She responds by willingly helping Sophia help Celie run her shop, and when her parents protest this, Eleanor Jane simply tells them that a woman like Sophia didn't deserve to have to work for trash like them.
    • In the film, Albert has his own "Eureka!" Moment when Old Mr. insists what he really needs is a new woman. Albert just shoves him out the door.
  • Curse: Celie gives an epic one to Mister when she prepares to leave for Memphis with Shug: "Until you do right by me, everything you even think about is going to crumble." Though it's heavily implied that Mister's own Heel Realization soon afterward is what turns his life to shambles. He simply gives up any semblance of housekeeping, and only snaps out of it when Old Mr. tells him to get another woman.
  • Dangerously Close Shave:
    • Celie contemplates giving this to Mister before the razor's swiped from her hands.
    • Mister is savvy to this very early on, warning her that if she ever so much as scratches him during a shave, he will kill her.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In all iterations, girls as young as 14 are seen as eligible for marriage, which can be incredibly unsettling to a modern audience. Thereís also a rather casual attitude to people of either sex hitting their spouse, and itís seen as a minor annoyance at best and a necessary discipline at worst. The story is set in the late 1920s to early 1930s, and the movie treats these topics rather critically.
  • Disney Death: Celie believes her two children are killed in infancy by Pa after he takes them away from her after childbirth. Turns out they survived past infancy; they were just sold off to different adoptive families as orphans.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Pa Harris rejects Mister's bid to marry Nettie (offering up Celie as a counter proposal), he trots Celie out for Mister to "have a look at", extols Celie's virtues ("no stranger to hard work"), and tells her to do a complete 360 turn around. If a view closed their eyes during this scene and heard only most of the dialogue, it wouldn't be entirely shocking to assume the two men were haggling over either a beast of burden, or (worse) a slave.
    • Mister telling Harpo that "Wives is like children".
  • Domestic Abuse: Exaggerated. The idea of a husband hitting his wife is seen by most characters as either simply disprespectful at best or a necessary discipline at worst. None of Celieís friends consider pressing charges, though they do acknowledge that itís a bad thing and Shug takes Celie with her when she realizes Nettie is alive. Justified in that this is a Period Piece and takes place in 1930s America. And of course it makes sense that black people in that time period wouldnít trust the cops.
  • Don't Split Us Up: Between Celie and Nettie.
  • Grunting Orgasm: Mister lets one out as he rapes Celie the night following their arranged wedding.
  • Foreshadowing: As Shug paints her red nails, she is told by one of the children that Celie is shaving Mister. She continues on at first as the camera zooms on her abruptly stopping, hiding her facial expression of seeing the bigger picture.
  • Henpecked Husband: Harpo seems to be one, as Sophia seems to bully him around. Mr. telling him to hit her causes their separation, but it's repaired by the end of the film, when Mr. toasts, "It sure is nice... to see... you two together again."
  • Hide Your Lesbians: The lesbian themes of the book gets scrapped in the movie, aside from Celie still finding Shug pretty and one kissing scene.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: When they're separated, Nettie declares only death will stop her from writing, but no letters come. Mister, meanwhile, refuses to let Celie at the mailbox, saying he'll beat her if she opens it. He's hiding all of Nettie's letters to spite her for fighting off his rape attempt. Celie and Shug find a whole trove of them.
  • Incest-ant Admirer: Nettie is aware that Pa wants to sexually abuse her too and is Squicked out by it. Pa keeps trying. That is, until Nettie runs away.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Subverted. Shug Avery tells Mister (Albert) to "get that thing" (Celie) to make her something to eat, which initially suggests her contempt for Celie, but Shug later admits her initial hostility towards Celie was spurred by her jealousy of Celie's relationship with Albert.
  • Karma Houdini: Pa is never ever forced to face the consequences of his cruelty.
    • It could be inferred that when Mister forcibly ejects him from his home at the end of the movie, he likely won't make him welcome in his home again, as Mister has rejected his father's negative influences.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: Celie and Nettie learn that their abusive father Pa Harris is actually their stepfather, not their biological father. Their biological father died when they were too young to remember him.
  • Living with the Villain: Celie and Mister. From an arranged marriage no less.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Celie and her children.
  • Love Triangle: Mister/Shug/Celie.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Sophia and Harpo, at first. In the novel, Sophia makes mention of how Harpo loves to do traditionally feminine things like cooking, housekeeping and taking care of the children, while she prefers working in the fields and chopping wood.
  • Marital Rape License: After being married off to Albert, Celie has to deal with being raped daily by her husband.
  • Mood Whiplash: The very opening scene, after the two sisters are shown enjoying themselves among the flowers. It immediately cuts to Pa emotionally abusing them, and then stealing Celie's child right out of her arms immediately after she gives birth.
  • Not Worth Killing: Sofia pleads this when Celie has a carving knife against Mister's neck.
  • Obliviously Evil: Miss Millie. She may not be as overtly nasty as the more present antagonists, but she's also too self-absorbed to notice her own abhorrent behavior.
  • Offing the Offspring: What Celie believes has happened to her two children post-birth. Turns out they're still alive.
  • Parental Substitute: In the book, Sofia becomes the mother of Squeak's children with Harpo, her own children having forsaken her.
  • Pair the Suitors: In a twist of irony, Celie and Shug enter a romantic and sexual relationship with one another after Shug was at first assumed to be competing with Celie for Mister's affection.
  • Queer Romance: From the get-go the book makes it clear that Celie is attracted to Shug and that she isn't attracted to men. Shug and Celie's friendship eventually turns sexual, culminating in a rocky romance. The film tones this down to just Homoerotic Subtext.
  • Rape as Drama: In the first few pages of the book... and Walker was just getting started.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Celie delivers a very well-deserved one to her husband, along with a Curse that he had coming.
  • Rejected Apology: Eleanor Jane tries hard to get Sofia to acknowledge Eleanor Jane's son, because from her eyes she was a family member. However, Sofia rejects her, telling her that she just can't. She was victimized by white people and specifically her family and she has no empathy for her or her infant, at all — and assumes that Eleanor Jane will grow up to be as racist as her parents. Eleanor Jane vows that won't be the case, but the book is doubtful too, and never resolves the issue. The film replaces the scene with Sofia being cold towards a white toddler instead.
  • The Reveal: Celie finds out her father (Pa Harris) wasn't her biological father, so her children were not the result of Parental Incest.
  • The Rival: Shug Avery initially sees Celie (Albert's wife) as this in regards to Albert, which sparks her contempt and ridicule of her upon their meeting ("You sho' is UGLY!); she admits as much to Celie later. But after Celie nurses her back to health (and when it becomes apparent that the two share no affection for each other), she definitely warms up to her and any jealous feelings go away.
  • Screaming Birth: Celie is depicted going through this in the beginning as she screams, sweats and bleeds profusely through a very painful birth before her second child, a girl she names Olivia, is born.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • The jook joint slowly but surely starts to empty out when Squeak slaps the feared Sofia. An old man starts leaving as soon as Squeak and Sofia begin arguing, and the band starts packing their instruments right after the slap.
    • Celie immediately leaves the kitchen when Mister tries to light the stove to cook breakfast for Shug.
  • Sexual Karma: After enduring an unhappy arranged marriage to Mister filled with domestic abuse and marital rape, Celie finds bliss in a tender romantic relationship with Shug Avery.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Sofia is reduced to a broken shell after spending prison time for assaulting a racist mayor. An opportunity to crack a good joke later brings her back to her old self again. In the film version, this moment comes when Celie finally stands up to Mister. The film goes on to subvert this trope shortly afterward, when Celie tells Mister straight out that she's prepared to kill him if he tries to stop her from leaving. Sofia visibly shrinks, showing the audience that her old self is still in there, but truly overcoming her time in prison won't be that easy.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Celie is attracted to Shug and only Shug throughout the entire novel.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Unfortunately justified as this book/film takes place in the 1910s/early 1920s and Celie is black, poor and a woman - as Mister points out, who would care?
  • Stalking Is Love / Stalker with a Crush: Celie for Shug, especially after their kiss.
    Celie Shug like honey and I just like a bee.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Poor Celie (even as a fourteen year old) steadfastly resolves not to cry or show any type of visible discomfort while the hated "Mister" is having sex with her.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The arrival of Shug Avery.
  • Tamer and Chaster: The book has quite a bit of sexuality in it, especially concerning Celie's sexual exploration, which the film removed.
  • Title Drop: Happens while Shug and Celie are passing a field of flowers.
  • Token Black Friend: Deconstructed; Miss Millie is very attached to Sofia, but doesnít actually care much about Sofiaís needs or the fact that she separates her from her children for EIGHT YEARS. The two also only become friends after Sofia is arrested and forced to work for her lest be given a harsher sentence. Itís also unusual of course, in that Sofia is much more of a prominent character than Miss Millie. It is Miss Millie's daughter, Eleanor Jane, who realizes how screwed up it is and tries to make amends.
  • Tranquil Fury: Celie, when she finally stands up to Mister.
  • Traumatic Haircut: When Celie has a hard time combing her stepdaughters' hair, she suggests shaving the hair off and starting fresh, but Mister disagrees and says that it is "bad luck to cut a woman hair". The girls have to then endure hours of pain as Celie tries her best to detangle their hair.
  • Villainous Incest: Pa with his daughter Celie and attempting to do the same with her sister Nettie, who's later revealed to be not her real father.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Grady, Shug's husband, just up and disappears before the end of the film. The book says he and Shug eventually break up, and he starts a marijuana plantation in Central America.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: "Miss Celie's Blues" is basically a musical love letter to Celie, where Shug lets Celie (and everyone else) know that Celie is beautiful and shouldn't be taken for granted.
    Shug: I'm somethin, I hope you think that you're somethin' too.
  • You're Not My Mother: Uttered by a young Harpo when he hurls a rock at Celie's head, knocking her to the ground.

The Musical contains examples of:

  • In Mysterious Ways: The title of the opening number, where the congregation praises God's ability to bring good out of evil. There's some Alternative Song Interpretation going on... the congregation gossips about some of the abuse going on in Celie and Nettie's house, but do little to help.
  • Lighter and Softer: The musical takes on a more comedic and empowering tone, and while not dismissive of its darker subject matter, the comedic moments are more common. Several characters are also kinder and more encouraging to Celie.