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Monday, February 04, 2013

The Color Purple

This week’s edition of the Monday Matinee was a fairly easy one to write.  It’s a film that made a huge killing at the box office, was the film debut of two women who would grow to become huge stars in both the acting and talk show hosting world, and also happens to fit in nicely with the theme of the month (which of course is Black History Month).

So, why you ask, is this entire blog entry typed in purple?  Well, hold on to your hats.  I’m getting there (and no, it's not because the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl last night...but congratulations to them on their victory).

But first, I want to ask you a question.

Have any of you ever heard of an author named Alice Walker? 

I see some of you nodding your heads yes, while others of you are staring blankly at me in the face wondering what I had just said.  Well, okay, not really.  I cannot see you through my laptop.  But, a guy can pretend, can’t he?

The truth is, Alice Walker wrote a book over thirty years ago that got a lot of people talking (and reading).  That book has sold millions of copies since it was first published in 1982, and in 1983, Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Award for Fiction.  The book depicted the struggles of young black women growing up during 1930s America, and the fight to have their voices heard in a society that deems them next to worthless.  It was definitely a book that was not for the faint of heart, as some of the situations that the main characters had to endure were incredibly horrific and disgusting.  So much so that the book is ranked at #17 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009.

But I think it’s good that an author would stick to their guns and write a powerful story, even if the imagery inside of the book is something that paints a rather disturbing picture.  Besides, if anyone has ever read the book in question, they would quickly find out that despite the despair and pain that the protagonists have gone through, there’s plenty of hope that could be found as well.

That book was “The Color Purple”, and as it so happens, today’s movie will look at the 1985 film adaptation of “The Color Purple”.

(Does this now explain the purple text?  J )

Now, the reason why the book (and movie) was called The Color Purple is all about symbolism.  I always get a kick out of watching a movie and pointing out the little bits of hidden messages and symbolic uses of props, patterns, and colours.  I even did a school project in my English Media class in high school on symbolism found in horror films.  And, purple plays a very important role in both the book and the movie.

On one hand, you could say that purple could be used in a negative sense.  The main character of the book is a young woman named Celie who goes through a whirlwind of emotional distress in her early years, which causes her to look at the world in a negative sense, and leaving her without the ability to appreciate the simple beauty in everyday life.  As a young girl, Celie was sexually abused, which left telltale purple marks on the most sensitive parts of her body, and she also remarked that the bruises and scrapes found on her friend Sofia’s face was like the color of an eggplant. 

And, as we all know, an eggplant is purple.

But purple also represented a colour of high prestige as well.  At some point during the story, Celie wanted to wear something that made her feel like a queen, but couldn’t because the stores didn’t have anything that was purple in colour (keeping in mind that purple was considered a colour associated with royalty).  And, purple represented the dreams that Celie had...dreams that she never believed that she would attain. 

It’s certainly a colour that is a common theme within the film adaptation, as well as the book.  Why else do you think that the movie poster is designed with a purplish tint?

The film adaptation for “The Color Purple” did extremely well at the box office, and was praised highly by critics.  The film was the eighth motion picture directed by famed director Steven Spielberg, and starred Danny Glover, Rae Dawn Chong, Margaret Avery, Desreta Jackson, Adolph Caesar, and in their motion picture debuts, Whoopi Goldberg and future talk show queen Oprah Winfrey.  The film was released on December 18, 1985, and made almost one hundred million dollars at the box office on a budget of fifteen million dollars.

The film also has a record associated with it, albeit not a record that one hopes to get.  The good news was that it received eleven nominations for Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and acting nominations for Goldberg, Winfrey, and Avery.  The bad news was that the film was completely shut out, not even winning one of the eleven awards that it was nominated for, tying the record set by the 1977 film “The Turning Point” (though Whoopi Goldberg did win a Golden Globe for her performance in 1986).

Despite this oversight, critics praised the film, as Siskel & Ebert gave the film two thumbs up, while New York Times critic Janet Maslen noted that while the film didn’t exactly line up with the book, it still worked splendidly.

“The Color Purple” begins in the early 1900s in the area known as the Southern United States.  We are introduced to Celie Harris (played by Goldberg as an adult), who has had an incredibly rough childhood.  By the age of fourteen, she has already given birth to a couple of children.  The father of her children?  Her own “father”!

(There’s a reason why the word “father” is in quotation marks.  You’ll have to watch the movie to discover why that is.)

Anyway, Celie’s “father” immediately takes away her children after they are born and sends them off to live somewhere else, for Celie’s future plans do not involve her becoming a mother.  No, she’s arranged to be married off to a wealthy man whom Celie only knows as “Mister”.  In truth, his real name is Albert Johnson (played by Glover), and “Mister” is no sweet, loving husband, who treats Celie as his own personal slave.

You’d have thought that he would know better, given that just a few decades earlier, his ancestors were likely enslaved at the hands of wealthy Americans...but sadly, this is not the case, as Albert beats Celie up and keeps her so frightened of him that she is forced into doing everything he wants.  Although things perk up for Celie a bit when her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) comes to stay with them (she teaches Celie how to read), the happiness is short lived when Albert tries to come on to Nettie and she rebuffs him enough times for him to throw her out of the house.  But Nettie promises Celie that she’ll find a way to stay in touch with her by writing her letters whenever she can.

Remember that promise for later, folks.

One day, an ex-lover of Albert’s, Shug Avery (Avery) decides to come and live with him and Celie.  And right off the bat, the first impression that Celie gives to Shug is not a good one, as Shug remarks that Celie is “ugly”.  But it really wasn’t Celie’s fault.  She had been feeling ill and was forced to wear a face mask to keep anybody else from catching her nasty virus. 

After a little bit of time passed, Celie and Shug soon became close friends, and Shug becomes Celie’s own personal self-confidence booster.

NOTE:  It is also mildly dropped in the film that an affair takes place between Shug and Celie...but if you read the book, it describes this relationship in greater detail.

Celie also finds a firm friend in a woman named Sofia (Winfrey), who happens to be married to Albert’s son, Harpo (Willard E. Pugh).  Sofia has also sustained abuse and torture from the menfolk in her life, but there is one thing that Sofia had that Celie did not. 

A backbone.

It wasn’t uncommon at all for Sofia to stand up for herself and give it as good as she took it.  She wasn’t about to let anybody take advantage of her, and her attitude certainly impresses Celie.  But unfortunately, Sofia took it a bit too far when she gets into a scuffle with the town mayor and his wife...and, well...see for yourselves.

One thing you can say...she was definitely a woman ahead of her time.

But shortly after this little incident, Celie comes across a rather shocking truth.  Apparently, her sister Nettie has settled in Africa, working with missionaries there, and she has been sending Celie dozens of letters.  Unfortunately for Celie, Albert has been getting to the mailbox first and has confiscated every single one so that Celie would never have access to them.

What a prince, huh?

Fortunately, with a little sleuth work courtesy of Shug and her new husband, Celie discovers a couple of years worth of letters that Nettie had sent...letters that Albert withheld from her all that time.  At first, Celie is absolutely angered that Albert would do this to her...but then she thinks about it some more and realizes that this information has given her renewed hope and courage...courage that Sofia showed her that fateful day.  Although Celie’s first instinct is to kill the very man that caused her so much pain, and almost succeeds when she considers stabbing him with the very knife she used to shave his face.  Luckily, Shug manages to prevent her from going through with it.

Later, at a family dinner, Celie is shocked to see Sofia in a near catatonic state due to the frequent beatings that she has suffered while in prison for punching the mayor.  It was like the trip to prison had taken all of the light inside of her.  But seeing Sofia in that state triggered something inside of Celie, and what ends up taking place is one memorable confrontation that puts everything out on the table.

And, I think on that note, we’ll end the plot summary for this film.  I’ve already said too much.  I will just provide you a clue with the ending.  It has a lot of slacks.  That’s all that I can say.

“The Color Purple” was a film that was necessary to make.  It portrayed a dark part of American history in which black women were made to feel inferior just because of the colour of their skin...but it also showed them taking back control and leading the fight to become recognized in a society that fought them every step of the way.  That’s to be admired.

I mean, would Whoopi Goldberg have become a famous actress, appearing in dozens of Hollywood features, and a panelist on “The View” had things stayed the same?

Would Margaret Avery have appeared in several acting projects of her own, and volunteered her time to helping battered women and at-risk teenagers had things stayed the same?

Would Oprah Winfrey have become a multi-millionaire, hosting a successful talk show for a quarter-century, and being the head of her own book club, magazine, and television network had things stayed the same?

Just some food for thought today.

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