TWENTY YEARS AGO, ON DECEMBER 18, 1985, WARNER BROS. released a movie directed by Steven Spielberg based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker novel The Color Purple (Harvest Books [reprint], May 2003). Unlike the director's blockbuster adventure and science fiction films, this one featured a mostly black cast and focused on the story of a woman in the rural American South. It was the kind of story that rarely made it to the big or small screen.
When Walker's story of Celie, Nettie and Shug--already a best-selling novel--made it to theaters, it captured viewers and, sometimes, critics. The film sent more people to Walker's novels and poems and was a memorable cultural experience, prompting people to quote lines from Celie or Shug and reference the film's joy and heartbreak.
The play, which is scheduled to open on Broadway this winter, is not without its critics, who had similar problems with the film as with the novel. According to the most vocal naysayers, the language was insulting to blacks, it was immoral and detrimental to show black women loving each other, and there wasn't one redeeming black male character through the whole story. Still, the film was commercially successful, as were many who were involved with it, though not one of its eleven Academy Award nominations yielded an Oscar.
One element of the novel--though only briefly revealed in the film--that sparked heated dialogue and accusations was that Walker, Spielberg and anyone associated with the film did not have the community's interests at heart when representing the romantic relationship between Celie and Shug. Their brief movie kiss and relationship seems almost quaint in our current era of discussions of bisexuality and gay marriage. While same-sex relationships are still a very controversial subject in the larger and black community, the presence of lesbian or bisexual characters isn't as unexpected as it was in 1985.
Then there are the faces that were not so familiar then, that are artistic and entertainment royalty to us now. Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey have become some of our most famous and recognized performers. Seeing so many black faces featured in one film was still a rare jewel and often received as such.
What Spielberg gave us, from the gift Walker originally crafted, was a sweeping story of a black, southern woman. It was the epic, one of only a few, that we've long deserved as founding--though unrecognized, abused and brought by...