The latest adaptation of The Color Purple fails its lead character | Film

The latest adaptation of The Color Purple fails its lead character | Film

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Color Purple follows the central years of Celie, a Black girl in 1900s Georgia who survives abuse at the hands of her father and husband, Mister.

There’s a surgical balance in how to depict Celie: someone deprived of love and compassion, but never passive, never weak. Unfortunately, the most recent big-screen musical remake, directed by Blitz Bazawule and written by Marcus Gardley, doesn’t live in the fullness of Celie’s life, notably Celie’s queerness.

From Walker’s original text to the subsequent adaptations, there have been various methods chosen to voice Celie’s thoughts. In the 1982 novel, Celie writes letters to God, giving texture to her life outside of the injustices done to her.

Steven Spielberg’s 1985 rendering inserted the letters as voiceovers from a child and adult Celie (played by a commanding Whoopi Goldberg). Bazawule chooses to forgo the letters entirely, illustrating Celie’s inner monologue through fantastical sequences. In one moment, Celie (a tender Fantasia Barrino) fantasizes as she draws Shug Avery (Taraji P Henson) a bath; in her mind’s eye, Celie traces Shug’s sudsy arm as the two are slowly spun on an imagined turntable. In another sequence, the two perform an elaborate dance in flapper dresses, before sharing their first, real-life kiss.

The insertions provide some glimpse and are a needed counterpoint to the source material’s brutality. But the high-flung fantasies often act as an echoing of Celie’s emotions versus an illumination. They shrug off Celie’s complexity, complications captured in Walker’s words. The refusal to sit in milestones of Celie’s life is most frustratingly captured in her romantic relationship with Shug.

Bazawule has acknowledged Celie as a “queer icon” and said the latest movie is an attempt to “lean into” Celie’s sexual orientation. But to say that the latest iteration puts queerness at the center would be a mistake. The depiction of Celie and Shug’s relationship, a centerpiece in Walker’s work, remains shy and chaste.

Bazawule’s adaptation is a more overt expression of sapphic relationships than Spielberg’s (the 154-minute movie featured a single kiss between the two, with no long-term relationship established), but feels so devoid of genuine love between the two women.

While Walker’s book shows the fullness of Celie and Shug’s relationship, Bazawule does not establish a long-term partnership between the two, nor acknowledge the couple’s breakup (as seen in the 2005 Broadway adaptation). In Walker’s text, Celie discovers the fullness of womanhood because of Shug, the love she can hold for herself, her capacity to be an independent and sexual being.

Celie discovers her ability for sexual pleasure through Shug, even before the two have sex. Shug encourages Celie to explore herself sexually, helping keep watch as Celie examines her vagina in a mirror.

Shug remains beside Celie as she navigates additional upheaval. When Celie discovers that Mister has been hiding letters from her sister, Shug cuddles with Celie and encourages her to find agency through making and wearing pants.

In Bazawule’s version, Celie’s decision to start selling pants is a pivot she stumbles into after receiving an inheritance from her biological father. But Walker’s actual text is precise: the decision to wear and sew the garment is itself a queer act of resistance, inspired by Shug in the face of Mister’s tyranny.

Instead of honoring Walker’s intentions, the movie erases the couple’s relationship almost entirely, and the betrayals that come with it.

Shug’s decision to have a fling with a 19-year-old boy (also featured in the Broadway musical adaptation) is removed. The plot point served as a nod to the expansiveness of Shug’s own sexuality, but also Celie’s deep investment in their mutual domesticity.

Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple
Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple. Photograph: Lynsey Weatherspoon/AP

Bazawule and Gardley are instead committed to showing the abuse suffered by Celie in painstaking detail. Slaps endured by Celie are readily included. One of the movie’s earliest fantasies – Celie retreating into a glammed-out picture of Shug – comes as she is being raped by Mister.

The abuse is, of course, a key element of Walker’s story. But here, Celie’s debasement is prioritized above her relationship with Shug and her overall healing.

At a time when Black queer people face increased threats and violence, the choice to blot out Celie’s queerness feels especially damaging. Black queer and trans people are increasingly and systematically under threat, as lawmakers pass a bevy of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and hate crimes against Black and queer communities rise nationwide.

The latest take on The Color Purple could provide a needed example of the healing that queer relationships can provide. It could serve as an exaltation of Black sapphic community, especially when such connections are treated with suspect and condemnation.

Instead, that thread of Celie’s life is frayed away. When Celie declares she is “here”, she is “beautiful”, it should also include her queerness too.

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