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The lasting impact of The Color Purple

The Color Purple is a melodrama — and the new movie musical keeps its traditions alive.

Two young Black girls in white dresses sitting in a tree.
Young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie (Halle Bailey) in The Color Purple.
Warner Bros.
Nylah Burton is an award-winning travel, entertainment, and lifestyle writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue.

Going to see The Color Purple, Blitz Bazawule’s 2023 musical adaptation of Gary Griffin’s 2004 Broadway musical adaptation of director Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel — what a mouthful — was a rich experience of seeing several texts built and layered upon each other. And the movie theater itself provided a communal experience, especially for Black women, for whom this tale may be our seminal melodrama.

Every time one of the famous lines appeared — like powerfully indignant “All my life I had to fight!” delivered by Sofia (Danielle Brooks) or the more offensive ones like Mister’s father grumbling, “You let a ho in yo house,” the crowd burst into laughter or claps or affirming cries of “Yes!” and “Mmmhmm … That’s right!” When young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie (Halle Bailey) said in unison, “Us have one heart,” the loving murmurs through the theater were audible. It was a diverse crowd, but the people who clearly knew the lines — and, more importantly, felt the lines — were pretty much all Black, and most of them were women.

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a dark-skinned Black girl living in Georgia during the early 1900s. Celie is raped by her father and forced to bear two children, then endure being separated from both them and her beloved younger sister, Nettie, as she struggles in an abusive relationship with her husband, Mister. Along the way, Black women show her the way to empower herself, and by the end of the story, she is free and transformed.

This latest version of The Color Purple is a different work from the Broadway show before it, and the film before that and the book before that, because every adaptation is its own unique piece of art, fulfilling its own purpose and often even appealing to different communities. But because of the strong cultural presence The Color Purple has in the Black community — particularly among Black women — the musical’s power was undeniable, all of us recognizing the same themes and beloved characters we grew up with. Racquel Gates, an associate professor of film at Columbia University, tells Vox that The Color Purple is, for Black women, our foundational pop culture text. Knowing the beats and quotes of the Spielberg film by heart can start in early childhood. “I saw it when I was about 6 years old — I was probably too young to be seeing it — and my most vivid memory is of my friends and I talking about it at school,” she said. The musical feels like a gift to Black women like Gates, an homage to one of the most impactful movies of our lives, a celebration of the joy and community we found in it.

When I logged on to Zoom to speak with Samantha N. Sheppard, associate professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University, about The Color Purple and why Black people love to laugh along with it, I was wearing two pigtails, my go-to hairstyle on casual days. Sheppard chuckled warmly and said, “You got your cute li’l Celie braids in.” I laughed back, the loving jest reminiscent of my childhood, when quotes from The Color Purple were more common in my mother’s Black American family than Bible quotes.

As it is for many Black women, The Color Purple was one of my earliest memories, despite the original movie coming out in 1985, 10 years before my birth. The adults quoted the movie all the time, screaming “Celie! Nettie!” anytime they reunited with a sister, or a cousin, or a best friend. Or they yelled out Sofia’s exclamation — “I’s married now!” — when a man finally proposed or just to express the joy of creating a new family. Or maybe they craned their necks and uttered Squeak’s “Harpo, who dis woman?” when someone not in our in-group showed up looking unusual. And sometimes, we’d say, “All my life I had to fight.” On good days, it was just to be funny. On worse days, it was to mask genuine pain, a way to smile through the wrongdoing either a white person or a Black man — even one in our own family — had done to us.

It might seem strange to others that Black people find so much joy in a movie that includes incest, rape, family separation, domestic violence, and white terrorism. But Sheppard says this tendency isn’t a random phenomenon. There is a deep reason why, to us, it makes perfect sense.

Gates says the key is understanding the genre of the text at hand. “The Color Purple is a melodrama, and it’s operating within the realm of a melodrama,” she says. “I think that that has become increasingly harder for audiences to sort of read and to decipher. So if you see The Color Purple through an overly simplistic, straightforward representational analysis, all you can say is ‘The characters aren’t positive.’ But if you read it through [the lens of] melodrama, where you understand that the guts of the movie are being worked out in the interpersonal conflicts and drama, that gives you a very different and correct reading of the film, which is the one that Black women audiences have always had of that film.”

In other words, this is why when we went to see the musical, all the Black women were laughing and everyone else seemed a bit befuddled, wondering why we were laughing at a woman saying she’d kill her husband before she let him beat her. But that’s because, for us, it’s not about the beating. It’s about the strength Sofia showed, the bond she and Celie made that day, the redemptive arc Harpo embarks on later. “I don’t think the movie’s about pain,” Sheppard says. “I think people have a hard time sitting with a movie featuring traumatic events still being ultimately a story about love, sisterhood, family, and connection.”

She continued, “And we can see that in how we use the movie to lovingly joke, like I said to you about your braids. It’s a way to say, ‘Oh, are you like me? Are you a Black girl like me?’” Both the musical and the experience of watching it are full of these moments, Black women and girls coming together to ask that question of each other, receiving a resounding yes. Even in the iconic scene where Sofia confronts Celie (Fantasia Barrino) for telling Harpo (Corey Hawkins) to beat her into submission, Sofia finds sympathy and common ground with Celie. The iconic lines of “All my life I had to fight” and “I loves Harpo — God knows I do — but I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me” turn into a Black feminist anthem about standing up and saying “Hell naw” to abusive men in our lives, engaging and empowering the entire theater.

Two Black women approach each other on an enormous early 20th-century musical stage.
Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and Shug’s (Taraji P. Henson) relationship is central to The Color Purple.
Warner Bros.

It almost felt like church. Even though it was the first time we were all hearing this song, we knew its message. We knew its power. When Sofia sings, “Sick and tired of how woman still treated like a slave,” there was an exhale, because Black women know all too well the double oppression of race and gender. And that is what The Color Purple, in all its iterations, is about. Alice Walker is not just a novelist, but an intellectual giant who explored feminist and womanist theory (although unfortunately, she has recently supported J.K. Rowling amid criticism of the Harry Potter author’s anti-trans statements). In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Walker wrote, “To me, the black black woman is our essential mother, the blacker she is the more us she is and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.”

Through this one quote, one can see the political philosophy that undergirds the movie and the musical. Celie is a dark-skinned woman made to believe she is worthless. And the people in her life who believe this malicious fiction — most notably her husband, Mister — come to ruin as long as they hold on to this hatred. A true reunion with family and culture isn’t possible until they radically transform, an idea captured by Whoopi Goldberg’s iconic hoodoo curse on Mister in the original movie: “Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble. Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail.” After Mister’s repentance, that return is signified by Nettie’s travels to Africa and coming home with Celie’s long-lost children, who are now Africans due to their move with their missionary adoptive parents, who hired Nettie. As an aside, this is a brilliant inversion of the pain of the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people — African children returning to their Black Southern mother, crossing the Atlantic to be reunited, not separated. But this ending is only possible because those around Celie have started to release themselves from the bondage of hating Black women. Walker’s message is clear, and extended through the songs of the musical: We will not be free until we embrace, love, and support the Black woman.

The book has so many layered discussions within it, but the musical is almost a clarifying accompaniment to the text of the 1985 movie and the book, making explicit the themes of friendship, heartbreak, desire, and awakening through song. Often musicals can feel more obscuring than revealing, lyrics packed with metaphor replacing straight dialogue, but this musical somehow does the opposite. It reaffirms what Black women have always known — the true meaning of this story.

When the original film came out in 1985, some planned to boycott it over protests of its portrayal of Black men. Celie’s father was raping her and getting her pregnant, her husband was a cheater who beat her constantly, his son Harpo was bumbling and a bit unaware — evoking minstrel tropes, people said — and the grandfather was cranky and deeply misogynistic. And there was valid criticism over whether Spielberg, a white man, could direct the film while showing the full range of Blackness and avoiding tropes. For instance, the scene where Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is shaving Mister (Danny Glover) after he hits her and considering slitting his throat, juxtaposed with her children — now in Africa — receiving their tribal markings. Bazawule, a Black director, notably changes this in the 2023 film to simply a moment when Celie considers killing Mister, without the implications of violence in sacred African traditions. Gates also points out that while the movie’s opposition, claiming it was an unfair portrayal of Black men, was rooted in misogyny, there are valid questions about what Spielberg chose to leave out or put in.

“In the novel, there’s talk of how Mister liked to sew as a little boy and how he was punished for that by his dad,” Gates says. “There’s a lot in the novel that I think fleshes out his character that doesn’t show up in the movie.” Although the musical still doesn’t include it, Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Mister almost gives it that full humanity that Spielberg’s movie is missing. Domingo is an intensely talented actor, able to embody almost any character and inject meaning into a single glance or body movement. His Mister is an homage to Danny Glover’s, but it’s also a portrayal with a wider range of possibilities.

By the end of the movie, we had all cried and laughed until we felt full. I can’t say what The Color Purple means to people who aren’t Black, because all I’ve ever known is a Black reading of the book, the film, and now this movie musical. But I will say, to anyone confused about why Black women laugh so much about a movie that on the surface seems dark, remember the scene when Sofia is released from prison. Once perfectly executed by Oprah Winfrey and played beautifully by Danielle Brooks here, Sofia is quiet, refusing to eat or talk after being tortured for years in prison. The feisty spirit of the woman who once used to drag Harpo around by the ear, tell Mister off, and encourage Celie to fight back has been broken. But when she hears Celie stand up to Mister for the first time and take her life back, she slowly starts to laugh, her laughter rising and crashing upon everyone like a wave as she fills her plate and eats voraciously, saying, “Sofia’s back now.”

It’s a moment that I’ve remembered my whole childhood, a moment that encapsulates why we laugh with The Color Purple — never at it. Because for Black people, especially Black women, laughter is how we heal. Laughter is how we find our way back — back home, back to each other, and back to ourselves.

The Color Purple is out in theaters now.

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