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'The Color Purple' Is a Cultural Touchstone for Black Female Self-Love

Warner Bros. Pictures

Beyoncé quoted the movie in the liner notes of her first solo album. When Kerry Washington appeared on the cover of InStyle with dubiously light skin, black women across Twitter referenced it. A type of natural hair twists is named after it. And when a friend texted me that she was eloping, I responded by sending her a scene from the movie. Thirty years since its film adaptation, The Color Purple lingers as perhaps the cultural touchstone for black women in America, a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship.

Alice Walker—a former Ms. Magazine editor, the daughter of sharecroppers—published The Color Purple in 1982. It was the first work by a black woman to win both the Pulitzer and National Book awards. Beyoncé appropriation aside, though, the story isn’t about feminism as much as it is about empowering its audience by unburdening us of pathos and cultural shame.

Both the novel and the film adaptation were a controversial and cathartic affront to the politics of respectability—the black middle class value set that dictates which behaviors are “appropriate” for black people. The protagonist, Celie, is a survivor of incest who lives most of her life as the servant of a violent man who refuses to marry her; in his eyes, her ugliness makes her fit for backbreaking work and little else. Set in rural Georgia in the early twentieth century, the narrative is about abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual—the story of a black woman who is raped by her stepfather and only escapes to be caught in a relationship with another tyrannical man, “Mr. —.”

Spike Lee said that the Steven Spielberg–produced film was “done with hate,” and that the Mr.— character was a “one-note animal.” The Coalition Against Black Exploitation protested The Color Purple’s 1985 Los Angeles premiere for its depiction of black men abusing black women. The novelist Ishmael Reed called The Color Purple “a Nazi conspiracy,” and even suggested that both the novel and the film were critically acclaimed expressly because they slam black men.

Reed was wrong then and he’s wrong now. The popularity of The Color Purple has very little to do with besmirching black men. Instead, it has everything to do with black women’s rejection of respectability politics: from the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, Mr.—’s ex-lover; to the representation of traditional Christianity as small-minded and stifling; to the narrative’s assertion that domestic violence arises from patriarchal hysteria about women’s strength, not our weakness.  

Black women turned out in droves to see the film. We continue to reference it today because it breaks a certain cultural silence about abuse. Respectability politics imperil black women by demanding we stay mute; they insist that black people are a monolith whose reputation must be protected and preserved, whatever the cost. This extends to art, which appears only to be acceptable if black characters are struggling to “get better,” to put checkered pasts firmly in the past. But the truth is obvious. We aren’t interested in stories about the perfect; we’re interested in stories about the real. As film historian Donald Bogle wrote:

When you see Whoopi Goldberg [who plays Celie] in close-up, a loving close-up, you look at this woman, you know that in American films in the past, in the 1930s, 1940s, she would have played a maid. She would have been a comic maid. Suddenly, the camera is focusing on her and we say I've seen this woman some place, I know her.

We know her because she is us twice over. For a black female audience, Celie feels like an ancestor who survived, so we might thrive. That a film about black women like The Color Purple was made at all feels like progress. Anyone who watches it has an opportunity—because of Goldberg’s moving, Oscar-nominated performance—to walk in Celie’s shoes and to experience how it feels to be black, poor, and ugly.

Respectability politics make life worse by shaming people with a facade of dignity. The Color Purple, on the other hand, teaches us that dignity does not come from ducking behind appearances and hiding yourself. Being a victim is nothing to be ashamed of.

By relentlessly focusing on black female vulnerability, The Color Purple disassembles the myth of the strong black woman. This particular stereotype tells a perversely aspirational tale of how much black women can do with very little, how much pressure we can withstand without support. How we don’t require protection because not only can we defend ourselves, but also because we are to be feared—even when we are asking for help. Whether we are deemed invincible or “de mule uh de world,” as Zora Neale Hurston called us in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the strong black woman myth sees us as inhuman at worst, neglected and depleted at best.

Celie, on the other hand, hasn’t fought. She’s suffered. Her daughter Sofia suffers too, after she is unjustly imprisoned for rejecting a white woman's job offer. Sofia’s strength and sass show us the most harmful effect of the strong black woman stereotype: It makes her more vulnerable to both domestic unrest and civil attack, foretelling for black women violence as a response to mistreatment. It should not come as a surprise that when many black women feel wronged we brandish the meme “Miss Celie’s curse.”

Despite the violence, sex and intimacy remain a potent healing force. Celie’s relationship with Shug stands as a singular portrayal of black female sexual fluidity. The lesbianism in the novel is still cited by those who wish to keep it off school readings lists, and when the book was first published, some critics called Celie and Shug’s sexual relationship “unusual.” Alice Walker has said: “There may be some people who are uncomfortable with the idea of women being lovers.”

For black women especially, loving means placing the needs of others above our own. In respectability politics, it means that you comport yourself in a way that compromises the self and therefore doesn’t humiliate the group. In The Color Purple, this all gets inverted. Self-love must first be achieved to properly love others. Self-acceptance leads to substantial community standing. Love and sexual satisfaction flow from self-esteem. And as a concept, sexual fluidity privileges female desire while neutering compulsory heterosexuality. Celie and Shug don't end up together in either the novel or the movie, and that's not the point of the story. The choice of self makes meaningful, satisfying sexual relationships possible in the first place.

In the end, The Color Purple has a happy ending. Celie escapes Mr.—’s house and is reunited with her beloved sister and children, leavening the dark, pastoral elements of the story. As a result, The Color Purple has made it onto Broadway twice: Oprah Winfrey produced the musical based in 2005 and is slated to produce the rebooted show later this year, which stars Jennifer Hudson as Shug.

“Art comes, like everything else, out of nothing, out of silence,” Walker wrote in The Guardian, “out of, I suppose, longing.” The Color Purple reminds black women that longing is a material that we only have to choose to sculpt. It imparts the hope that at whatever place we find ourselves in our lives, we can be the women inside of us; that we can be more than we are right now. It’s a spirit-affirming message, one that’s continually relevant for its truth.

This article has been updated.