Revisiting 'The Color Purple' wars : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the final chapter of our special documentary series Screening Ourselves, host Aisha Harris recounts the debates ignited by Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple. The 1985 film is remembered as a fan-favorite centering Black women's lives, but the acclaimed adaptation of Alice Walker's novel was received quite differently among female viewers and male viewers.

Revisiting 'The Color Purple' wars

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A warning - this episode contains explicit language and discussion of sexual assault.


Welcome to a very special weekend edition of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. Today, we're presenting the third and final installment of Screening Ourselves, a series created by our host, Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.

HARRIS: Hey, Linda. We did it (laughter).

HOLMES: You did. You made it.


HOLMES: In the previous episodes, you explored "The Godfather" and its complicated legacy within Italian American communities. You talked about how "Basic Instinct" became a cultural flashpoint in the fight for better queer representation on screen. So what is next?

HARRIS: Up next is a movie that I have a personal relationship with just having grown up having it on TV all the time when I was kid. And that would be "The Color Purple" from 1985. And, of course, that was directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and starred Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey - you know, big, mainstream, tentpole movie. And it's one of those films that I think today is generally regarded as a classic. People love it. But when it first came out, there was a lot of tension and debate about how it depicted Black men and Black women and the Black family. And this was coming at the time when there's a lot of hand-wringing in news and media about a lot of these things. And so I just wanted to kind of look at that, examine how it's connected to the present day and how we're still having all of the same conversations, just in different forms and in more real-life examples. And yeah, so "The Color Purple."

HOLMES: All right. I cannot wait to hear it, so take it away.

HARRIS: Near the end of "The Color Purple," the character of Celie, who's played by Whoopie Goldberg, finally has a triumphant conversation with her abusive husband during a big family meal.


DANNY GLOVER: (As Albert) Now what's wrong with you?

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) You a low-down dirty dog. That's what's wrong. It's time for me to get away from you and into Creation. And your dead body'd be just the welcome mat I need.

HARRIS: After a lifetime of trauma, she's reached her breaking point with Mister, the man she was forced to marry as a teen, who's played by Danny Glover. She's discovered that her long-lost sister, Nettie, has been sending her many letters from Africa for years, but Mister has kept them from her all this time. The revelation enrages and emboldens Celie to confront him about having isolated her from the one person who's ever loved her.


GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) But Nettie and my kids - they're coming home soon. And when we all get together, we're going to sit around and whoop your ass.

HARRIS: Celie announces she's leaving him, and the tension gets so bad, she grabs a giant carving knife and lunges at him.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Celie, no.

GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) I curse you. Until you do right by me, everything you think about is going to crumble.

HARRIS: The other women on screen convince Celie to leave him be, and she walks towards a car to leave.


GLOVER: (As Albert) Who do you think you is? You can't curse nobody. Look at you. You're Black. You're poor. You're ugly. You're a woman. You're nothing at all.

HARRIS: Mister keeps going, but Celie's unfazed. She gets in the car and exclaims proudly...


GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) I'm poor, Black. I may even be ugly. But dear God, I'm here. I'm here.

HARRIS: When it was first released in 1985, "The Color Purple" was a cinematic outlier. For the first time, many Black women saw a movie that reflected their own experiences at home. Characters like Celie and the free-spirited Shug, who's played by Margaret Avery, or Sofia, the self-assured force of nature who's played by Oprah Winfrey.


OPRAH WINFREY: (As Sofia) I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I'd kill him dead before I let him beat me.

HARRIS: They were women who had seen or experienced abuse firsthand and pushed to seek happiness in spite of it all. But "The Color Purple" also reflected anxieties and debates about Black life in pop culture that had existed for generations and continue to reverberate in the present day. First, there was the fact that two white men, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes, were adapting Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Black womanhood. But even more contentious was the movie's subject matter. Nearly all of the Black men in the movie are depicted as cold-hearted, violent abusers. To some audiences, especially Black men, "The Color Purple" was the mainstream reinforcement of a deeply damaging and persistent perception.


LOUIS FARRAKHAN: So it starts off with a man, a Black man, looking like a beast, acting like a beast, engendering the hatred of those in the audience for him.

HARRIS: That's the incendiary religious leader Louis Farrakhan. It was the '80s, and it was "The Color Purple." Of course he was going to go in on this movie. But also weighing in with pointed criticism were people like academics, journalists, talk show hosts and the NAACP. That didn't stop the movie from becoming a commercial and critical success. It even wound up with a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations. And in the years since, its reputation as a beloved classic has only grown thanks to repeat cable broadcasts, a Broadway adaptation, hip-hop...


WINFREY: (As Sofia) All my life, I had to fight.

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Alls my life, I had to fight.

HARRIS: It's also always had an enthusiastic and devoted fan base of Black women and queer people. But back in 1985, when mainstream Black images were far more limited than they are today, "The Color Purple" was polarizing.


LAMAR: (Rapping) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

HARRIS: The 1970s was a relative boon for Black artists on screen. For the first time ever, major studio features were being directed by Black filmmakers, including Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier and Gordon Parks. Movies with predominantly Black casts, like "Sounder" and "Lady Sings The Blues," were being nominated for Academy Awards. Isaac Hayes became the first Black person to win the best original song Oscar for the "Theme From Shaft."


ISAAC HAYES: Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft. You're damn right.

HARRIS: But many of the movies of this era fell under what was dubbed blaxploitation - low-budget films often featuring Black characters as pimps, sex workers or drug dealers in dangerous urban environments, like in the 1975 movie "Dolemite."


RUDY RAY MOORE: (As Dolemite) Dolemite is my name, and ***king up motherf***ers is my game.

HARRIS: The acting and dialogue usually left much to be desired. By the end of the '70s, blaxploitation had virtually dried up at the box office. And in the next decade, roles for Black performers would recede again. Black-cast movies, particularly dramas, were still such a rare occurrence that a lot was riding on "The Color Purple" when it entered into production in 1985.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "The Color Purple" - an American story for the whole world. It's about life. It's about love. It's about us.

HARRIS: Alice Walker's book "The Color Purple" was released in 1982 to wide acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a first for a Black woman. It's an epistolary novel told from the point of view of Celie, a young teen growing up in the rural South in the early 1900s.


DESRETA JACKSON: (As Young Celie Harris) Dear God, I'm 14 years old. I've always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign, let me know what's happening to me.

HARRIS: The book itself has been controversial for its provocative themes around religion, faith and sex. It's landed on plenty of banned book lists over the years. Here's Walker describing some of its themes for "Democracy Now!" on the book's 30th anniversary.


ALICE WALKER: Then she discovers that the God that she's writing to is deaf, because he's basically the Christian God that has been imposed on Black people. And at that point, she starts writing to her sister. And eventually, she understands that divinity is all around us and that we are part of it, and it's in nature.

HARRIS: Walker writes Celie from a place of awe and curiosity, even as the world around her tries to suppress her joy. This was deep, ruminative subject matter that unflinchingly depicted domestic abuse, grief, sisterly bonds and lesbian romance from a distinctly Black and feminist point of view. So like me, you might be wondering, why was Steven Spielberg, of all people, directing the movie adaptation? Here's a clip of an interview with Quincy Jones, who was a producer and wrote the score for "The Color Purple."


QUINCY JONES: Steven had never done a film like that before. You know, no ILM special effects. You know, "Close Encounters," the greatest of them - made "Raiders," "Jaws," "E.T." And this is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Or directed African American actors, right?

JONES: Exactly.


JONES: This - that's right. This is a brand-new trip for Steven.

HARRIS: After years as Hollywood's resonant blockbuster whiz kid, "The Color Purple" would be Spielberg's first attempt at a realist drama. Despite his background as a white Jewish guy, he said he instantly connected with Walker's novel and her characters, as he explained during interviews at the time.


STEVEN SPIELBERG: So I wanted part of it to belong to me. And - because I just came to love all the characters in the novel. And I wanted to do it justice on the screen. I wanted to bring all those characters to life. I didn't want...

HARRIS: Now, as I'm sure you can probably imagine, a lot of people were skeptical about a white director being appointed to tell such a sensitive story about Black pain. But you've also got to remember, this was the '80s.

MARGARET AVERY: People would say, why did they have a white man directing?

HARRIS: This is Margaret Avery, who played singer Shug Avery in the movie.

AVERY: No. 1, there were no Black directors at that time that the studios would give that power to. We didn't have our John Singletons or Spike Lees and anybody else, or all of our wonderful Black female directors. So Steven was the only director with the clout that the studios would give it a go and the green light.

HARRIS: Alice Walker served as a consultant for the movie. She also had misgivings. Her journals were published in a book compilation in 2022. And in excerpts from her notes about the production, she expressed disappointment with several creative choices, including inaccuracies in the scenes portraying Nettie living in Africa with Celie's children. But Black observers weren't the only wary ones. Once the movie was released, some movie critics and filmmakers suggested Spielberg was way out of his depth. Of the film's 11 Oscar nominations, best director was not one of them.

The choice of director for "The Color Purple" may have been an obvious point of contention, but it was only a fraction of the debate. What really got people going was how "The Color Purple" showed and reflected Black life, and specifically the relationships between Black men and women.


HARRIS: "The Color Purple" premiered in December 1985. At a special screening in LA, a group known as the Coalition Against Black Exploitation staged a protest. In an interview with the LA Times, the president of the Hollywood Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP called the movie, quote, "very degrading for Black men." Both Glover and Spielberg defended their interpretation of the character at the time. Here they are talking about it in a 2003 featurette about the making of the movie.


GLOVER: I never judged it. I mean, I think that's the worst thing you could do as an actor is begin to judge the character. You can - all you can do as an actor, as an artist is try to be and try to live inside the character.

SPIELBERG: I never saw Mister as a villain. I saw Mister as a victim, a victim of his father, a victim of his grandfather, a victim of his era.

HARRIS: But these kinds of defenses didn't do much to silence the movie's critics.


TONY BROWN: You either love "Color Purple," or you hate "Color Purple."


HARRIS: Not long after "The Color Purple" went 0 for 11 at the Academy Awards, Tony Brown, a Black conservative journalist, dedicated an entire episode of his television talk show to a discussion of the movie.


BROWN: How many of you in here like "The Color Purple?"


BROWN: How many of you do not like "The Color Purple?"


HARRIS: Now, the panel on "Tony Brown's Journal" was made up of four Black men on opposite sides of the debate. The anti-"Color Purple" critics were Kwasi Geiggar, a member of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, and Vernon Jarrett, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. The defenders of the movie were Eric Estes and film critic Armond White. This was before social media, before blogs, before Black Twitter, a time where most of these fierce debates had to take place live and in person, and the reactions could be visceral. The segment was dubbed Purple Rage.


VERNON JARRETT: Well, when are we going to see a movie that is typical?

ERIC ESTES: When are Black men going to write it? This is the way Alice Walker...

KWASI GEIGGAR: They're out there.

ESTES: ...Wanted her book to be.

GEIGGAR: Wait a minute. They're out there.

ESTES: Alice Walker wrote this book the way she wanted it to be. If you want a book about positive Black men...

GEIGGAR: Obviously, obviously, obviously.

ESTES: ...Black men got to get out there and write a book. Make it a movie.


BROWN: So is this - is it a book about positive Black men?


JARRETT: Tony, do you see what we have here?

ESTES: This is her good piece of fiction.

JARRETT: Tony, Tony...

BROWN: Is it a book about positive Black men?

HARRIS: Over the course of about 30 minutes, the conversation touched on nearly every major critique that had been made of the film throughout its run. Here's a brief rundown of those grievances.


HARRIS: Argument one - "The Color Purple" further perpetuates harmful stereotypes to a global audience that'll believe that they are true of all Black people. Kwasi Geiggar.


GEIGGAR: Film has always been used as propaganda tools by Hollywood and the powers that be. And for us to look at a film and say that it's just someone's story, we don't understand that the way that people view us around the world primarily comes from what they see on screen.

HARRIS: Argument two - those same harmful stereotypes will perpetuate self-hate and shame in its Black viewers, particularly because of how frequently Celie is referred to as ugly. Kwasi Geiggar again.


GEIGGAR: Irregardless if that's what we do, we have to change that concept about ourselves. And the picture that does not give any context to it or consequences for anybody that acts - anybody's actions in the film is extremely damaging to our kids because remember this - women are the teachers of all men. The closest person that you have to you as a man is my mother, and any man in here will say the same thing.

HARRIS: Argument three, that "The Color Purple" is historically inaccurate because abuse at the hands of Black men wasn't even an issue for Black women in the early 1900s. Here's Vernon Jarrett.


JARRETT: I can tell you as a person here who knew some of the folks who survived that period, including my ex-slave grandmother, that Black men were not the rapist. You see more of that today, what urbanization has done to Black men.

HARRIS: Now, I'm not sure where Vernon Jarrett was cherry-picking this faux statistic from, but at least one woman in the audience that day refuted his assertion. So there's that. And then there was one final argument, that the romantic moment between Celie and Shug is a threat to heterosexual Black couples and Black masculinity. This was brought up by a different member of the audience.


BROWN: What effect will "Purple" have?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, God. We're going to have sisters turning to other sisters for comfort, physically and mentally. We are going - yeah, and it's happening.

BROWN: Already doing it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It is happening.

HARRIS: So yeah. There is a lot going on in that episode. In these arguments against the film, the critics were engaging with it from a strictly defensive mode. To Vernon Jarrett, Kwasi Geiggar, Tony Brown and some of those audience members, this was neither entertainment nor true to their worldview. It was a political vehicle for furthering the degradation of Black people and especially of Black men.

COURTLAND MILLOY: We're talking about a time when Black men were in serious trouble. We are - this was the era of the endangered Black man, right?

HARRIS: This is Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. Back when "The Color Purple" first came out, he wrote an article explaining why he had no desire to see the movie. While he complimented Alice Walker's writing style, he didn't like its focus on, quote, "how screwed up Black men are."

MILLOY: All kind of reasons for this - homicide, leading killer of Black men, drug addiction, incarceration. And on top of that, you had the Reagan revolution, which is a counterrevolution whose whole sole purpose was to cut out all social programs and give that money to the rich. And then out of the blue for Christmas, you get the same stereotypical character that Reagan was saying - that people were saying, no, these people aren't like that. That's not the way Black people are. And then the movie comes out, and there they are.

HARRIS: As Courtland notes, it wasn't like "The Color Purple" was the sole medium for depicting these images. The fuse had been lit decades earlier. So let's take a brief detour to a couple decades before "The Color Purple" - the year 1965, and the roots of the vitriol. So in March 1965, "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action" was completed. It's better known now as the "Moynihan Report," so named after the man who led the research, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The mission behind it was to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson that it would take a lot more than just legislation to advance the prospects of Black Americans. Moynihan made the case that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow had put Black people at a severe disadvantage in every aspect of life - employment, education, and especially the home.

Now, for him, all of this boiled down to the need to set a new national goal - the establishment of a stable Negro family structure. It'd be an understatement to call the Moynihan Report polarizing. It's had plenty of critics over the years, particularly for how it pathologizes Black culture despite being relatively progressive for its era. But its themes would illuminate strains already apparent to Black people, and it would reverberate throughout conversations about relationships between Black men and women in the decades to come.

Within the arts and culture worlds, queer women characters and appeals for sisterly solidarity were emerging out of the literary and dramatic works of writers like Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and Ntozake Shange. Their works would infuriate some of the same Black male critics who would eventually attack "The Color Purple." And when the '80s hit, Reaganomics and the crack epidemic did, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the rate of Black people who were never employed in 1982 was 27%, compared to white and Hispanics at 13 and 15%. That same year, the incarceration rate for Black males was reported as more than six times that of white males.

In January 1986, sandwiched between the release of "The Color Purple" and that episode of "Tony Brown's Journal," CBS News premiered a special called "The Vanishing Family: Crisis In Black America."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I didn't have a father. My father wasn't in the home. So, you know it really - male figures are not substantially important in the family.

HARRIS: It profiled several unwed teen parents from Newark, N.J. and was hosted by white journalist Bill Moyers.


BILL MOYERS: Today, Black teenagers have the highest pregnancy rate in the industrial world. And in the Black inner city, practically no teenage mother gets married.

HARRIS: It was kind of like the Moynihan Report for the Reagan era - alarmist, depressing, but less interested in the effects of systemic racism than Daniel Patrick Moynihan had been in 1965.


MOYERS: Darren Lyle is the father of Clarinda's baby. He is 18 and lives in central Newark. He dropped out of high school when he was 16. He has never held a steady job.

HARRIS: All of these strains and anxieties seem to be coursing through that episode of "Tony Brown's Journal" on "The Color Purple." But while "The Color Purple" was viewed by some as only adding to these sordid depictions of Black life, to others, it was a powerful, relatable piece of storytelling.

Critic Armond White, who is gay, was one of the other panelists on "Tony Brown's Journal" who praised "The Color Purple." He didn't get much time to argue his points because the naysayers overwhelmingly dominated that conversation. But when I spoke with him all these years later, he had plenty to say.

ARMOND WHITE: I think it's silly to argue that "The Color Purple" is not the wonderful film it is, is not the great and insightful and bold film that it is, just because it was made by a white man. Art is about empathy. If you're not able to understand what another person feels, you're depriving yourself of a better knowledge of your own feelings, frankly.

HARRIS: Armond is a longtime critic for National Review and the author of "Make Spielberg Great Again: The Spielberg Chronicles" (ph). He's a pretty controversial figure in his own right. His opinions on movies and pop culture have gotten him labeled as contrarian and troll by peers and readers throughout his career. But he considers "The Color Purple" to be one of the greatest American movies ever made and a pinnacle of queer representation. He also sees it as a film that's doing more than just wallowing in Black pain.

WHITE: There's sunshine and there's rain throughout "The Color Purple," so to speak. I think one of the best sequences in American movie history is the reading of the letters between Shug and Celie. And when Shug meets - first sees Celie, she comes out of the rain - speaking of sunshine and rain - and she sees Celie, and she says, you so ugly.


AVERY: (As Shug Avery) You sure is ugly (laughter).

WHITE: And the smile on Shug's face, laughing at Celie, is - that smile is then - turns quite differently when she kisses Celie, and it's Celie who smiles.


AVERY: (As Shug Avery) I love you.

GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) You think I's (ph) ugly.

AVERY: (As Shug Avery) No, I don't.

GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) You ugly. You sure is ugly. You still ugly. (Laughter) Amen.

AVERY: (As Shug Avery) Aw, Miss Celie. That was just the salt and sugar, me being jealous of you and Albert. I think you're beautiful.

WHITE: Whoopi Goldberg will never have a better moment in her career than that.

HARRIS: At one point during the segment back in 1986, Armond noted that the panel was sorely missing a woman's perspective. He wasn't wrong, though most of the audience members who chimed in during the conversation were women. And like Armond, some of them expressed their appreciation for the movie.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm only 22 years old, but I have gone through a lot. I thought the movie was great because it did take an unpleasant part and it brought it out so that people can see. But that's the deal with roots and everything else. We don't want to see that again. No, but how are we going to know about it? How are we going to deal with it? How are those people out there going to deal with it unless they're exposed to it?

HARRIS: Elsewhere, Black women were engaging with and discussing the movie on their own terms. Many of them also responded positively, as NPR's Lydia Kleiner (ph) reported during Oscar season.


LYDIA KLEINER, BYLINE: The intensity of disagreement between men and women about how to interpret the film led Howard University counselor Audrey Chapman to offer airing out sessions for students. Chapman says she was trying to avoid disastrous private confrontations by giving people a chance to say what was on their minds publicly. Chapman says male students took the film very personally.

AUDREY CHAPMAN: They overidentified with Mister, and Mister seemed to be the main character that everyone talked about, even though there were other men in that movie. The women said, but the movie wasn't about all Black men. And in fact, if that's the way you saw it, then all of you have a very warped sense of who you are.

HARRIS: Dorothy Gilliam, who had become the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post in 1961, wrote about embracing "The Color Purple" and viewing it as a useful opportunity to address sexism within the Black community.

DOROTHY GILLIAM: We were just looking for something that was not, you know, either - Blaxploitation. We were looking for a real drama about families.

HARRIS: At the same time, she now feels conflicted about how she framed Black men's opposition to the movie.

GILLIAM: Looking back, I think I could really understand a little bit more about some of the protest by Black men about that the movie showed Black men only in very negative ways. But I think I was so happy to see something about a Black family, about Black women and that really, quote, unquote, "starred Black women," that I kind of didn't give Black men all the credit I should have given them for the fact that they were very upset.

HARRIS: I think this gets at the heart of what author and critic Michele Wallace observed in her 1979 book, "Black Macho And The Myth Of The Superwoman" - this unresolved tension between race and gender that Black women must contend with regularly. Wallace argued that womanhood had been excluded from the Black radical movement of the 1960s. Here she is speaking with NPR's All Things Considered a couple months before her book was published.


MICHELE WALLACE: The problem of the Black woman was put aside in the interest of facing the problems of the Black man. You had to assume, you had to believe that Black men had been more oppressed, more devastated by slavery and racism than Black women. And you also had to believe that the key to rebuilding the Black race was a strong Black man.

HARRIS: On the one hand, you want to acknowledge, as a viewer, this whole history of Hollywood depicting Black men as buffoons and violent predators going all the way back to the birth of a nation. So I can sympathize with Dorothy Gilliam's conundrum and change of heart all these years later. But there's an equally long history of denigrating stereotypes of Black women, too. And while domestic abuse within Black families was under-researched at the time, what limited data there was suggested it was an issue many Black women had to contend with. For example, some studies from the late '80s indicate that Black women were living in battered women's shelters at disproportionately higher rates than white women.

With "The Color Purple," the breadth of Black women's pain and joy was finally, finally being rendered onscreen through several distinct characters, all in one movie. This was huge. It shouldn't and doesn't take anything away from Black men's experiences to acknowledge and celebrate this. Or, as one woman interviewed about the controversies by The New York Times put it, Black women should not be sacrificed for Black men's pride. Let the film roll.


HARRIS: From the beginning, Black women and queer people have praised and personally connected with "The Color Purple."


DESRETA JACKSON AND AKOSUA BUSIA: (As Young Celie Harris and Nettie Harris, singing) Makidada. Keep my sister away from me. Makidada.

HARRIS: But Black conservative and straight male critics were primarily chastising the movie for existing in the first place, which inadvertently is also a dig at Alice Walker's novel. For other observers, though, it was more about how the movie was made. Through various accounts over the years, Alice Walker's feelings about the way Steven Spielberg translated her novel to the screen could probably be best categorized as lukewarm. Here she is talking about her initial reactions to the movie with "Democracy Now!" in 2012.


WALKER: In the beginning, I didn't like the film because it just felt so outlandish. It's very weird having a book of yours made into a film. Everything looks like a cartoon. But I got used to it when I saw it in a theater with lots of people.

HARRIS: There's something to the way she describes how the movie, quote, "looks like a cartoon." Since its production, this sort of characterization of Spielberg's aesthetic has been invoked among the movie's critics and defenders alike. Even some of the cast questioned his creative choices at the time, particularly when it came to the relationship between Shug and Celie. In Alice Walker's book, a character's queer sexual intimacy is made plain. In the movie, it's toned down and reduced to a tender scene with a kiss on the lips. Here's Margaret Avery.

AVERY: That was a part of Steven making it - making the movie to make money. He said, if we show all of that, it's going to get stuck in the artsy film. It won't go commercial. And he did get a lot of backlash because of that, particularly from the gay population.

HARRIS: Part of the reason Walker was said to have sold the film rights to "The Color Purple" was because she understood the power and reach of movies and how Black people had been maligned within the medium for decades. Celie, Shug and Sofia - characters that were, up to that point, rare figures in the storytelling realm - these characters could reach a different and wider audience than her book ever could. To Armond White, at least, this is part of what makes the movie so effective as a story about queer women.

WHITE: The film doesn't try to make a case of her being a lesbian. It makes the case of her being a human being who loves. And this may be part of the reason why the film is not recognized as a movie about a gay woman, but it is.

HARRIS: But that's the conundrum when dealing with entertainment meant for the masses. The communities and cultures a movie depicts can only be appealed to so much without compromise and concessions. Many viewers felt that Spielberg fell short in bringing heft to certain scenes and characters. There were inappropriate comedic additions and levity added for commercial appeal and narrative flattening, like the famous scene where Sofia confronts Celie for telling Harpo to beat her. Sofia's powerful assertion of her right to defend herself against her husband is undercut by cross cuts of Harpo awkwardly lying to Mister about how he got those bruises.


WINFREY: (As Sofia) You told Harpo to beat me.

WILLARD E PUGH: (As Harpo Johnson) It was that mule, Pa. Old Joey? Old Joey, the mule? I tell you, I was out there trying to plow the north field, and the mule just went crazy. He started kicking and bucking, hitting me right there. Bust my eye, bust my lip...

HARRIS: Here's Dorothy Gilliam again.

GILLIAM: It's important for her to - us to also think about what Alice Walker, when she was writing the book - you know, what she had in mind. And I don't think the film quite captured that. It captured it a lot about the women, but not quite about the men. And when you read the novel, you see how there's much more in it that would support the fact that she also wanted to show that, you know, these men are doing some bad things, but they also are doing some good things.

MILLOY: The movie was not true to the book.

HARRIS: Courtland Milloy.

MILLOY: To Alice Walker's credit, she did give you a sense of what being Black was like in a way that Spielberg could not and did not. And, in fact, to make it a mass-marketed proposition, you had to make it not so much that way. You had to make it have universal appeal. So you have these people acting out of context down there. The villain should have been, you know, white slavery people and sharecropping people and stuff like that.

HARRIS: Yeah, so I'm not so sure I needed white racism to be the big bad in this movie. Also, Sofia has a life-altering experience when she's in prison for several years, then forced to live as an indentured servant for the mayor's wife after a racist encounter. Black men aren't the only antagonists in this movie. But these observations help illuminate how "The Color Purple" became an imperfect vessel for telling an unprecedented kind of Black story. It couldn't just be a movie that resonated deeply with certain audience members. Because of the era in which it was created and who was directing it, as well as who was voting on Academy Awards and who was most valued as a potential audience by studio execs, a significant number of white people were guaranteed to consume it, as well. Naturally, that can breed ignorant responses from some white viewers and some apprehension on the part of Black viewers.

I want to briefly jump back again to the episode of "Tony Brown's Journal" and a moment near the end where the host asks Armond White to comment on a white reviewer's response to "The Color Purple." In that review, that person had referred to the, quote, "no account Black men" in the movie.


WHITE: It bothers me about Parade magazine, not about the movie. I can't legislate how stupid people read that film. I think it's...

BROWN: Are all people stupid who don't see it from the standpoint as you do, from a great movie made by a great director named Steven Spielberg?

WHITE: Maybe I shouldn't say stupid, but I would say uninformed and naive and narrow.

JARRETT: You're the one that's uninformed about your own history, brother.


WHITE: No, no, no. Wait a minute. I would like to say something here.

JARRETT: Brother, you are - you might as well be white.

BROWN: Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

HARRIS: It can be a little difficult to make out because of all the crosstalk, but at the very end of that clip, Vernon Jarrett jumped in to say that Armond White, quote, "might as well be white." He basically called Armond an Uncle Tom.

WHITE: Well, that was stupid then. I think it's stupid now. I thought it was an attack on me as a Black man, that as a Black man, I should not be defending a white artist. And as a Black man, I should only be defending the work of a Black artist. But I don't think that way. I didn't then and don't now, either.

HARRIS: But that's where things were in 1986. Everything - too much - was riding on "The Color Purple." Here's Margaret Avery again.

AVERY: You can understand how it was received. Most Black people hadn't even read "The Color Purple." They didn't know that it was a Pulitzer Prize book and that it's fiction. And so we, I feel, had the burden of representing who we are as a people. And you cannot do that with a fictional story. You can only do the story.

HARRIS: And so she and her co-stars and Steven Spielberg and everyone else involved with the production did the story. And they were praised for their performances and nominated for 11 Oscars. And then they went home completely empty-handed.


STEVE PROFFITT, BYLINE: It was supposed to be the night when the Hollywood establishment kissed and made up with Steven Spielberg. Tinseltown prognosticators envisioned an Oscar night colored purple, topped off with the Best Picture award being accepted by Spielberg, the perfect Hollywood ending. But it was not to be, and "The Color Purple" was skunked, shut out by a big, lumbering epic, "Out Of Africa."

HARRIS: Well, not completely empty-handed. The NAACP would eventually award "The Color Purple" Image Awards. And the Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter wrote a letter in protest to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decrying the movie's lack of wins at the Oscars. So to be clear, this is the same NAACP that had loudly spoken out against "The Color Purple" just a few months earlier. What gives? If the movie was so bad, why would they go out of their way to award it and get upset with the academy for not doing the same? It'd be easy to label this move hypocrisy at its finest - disingenuous genuflecting. But the comments of Willis Edwards, the president of the NAACP's Hollywood chapter, illuminates how not every reaction to the movie was so black and white.

Around the time of the film's release, he told the LA Times, we're happy that a lot of actors who happen to be Black got to work, and they did a fantastic job. They should all be nominated for awards. But for the Black male, the movie is very degrading.


GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) Dear Celie, I know you think I'm dead, but I am not. I have been writing to you over the years. But I...

HARRIS: For all its creative ambitions, "The Color Purple" was also a commercial endeavor meant for the mainstream. So let's take a look at some stats. The movie made a little under a hundred million dollars at the box office upon its original release. It performed so well, it got a theatrical rerelease in 1987, just three months after its initial run ended. That didn't necessarily mean there was a sudden boom in casting for Black performers. Whoopi Goldberg would later suggest the protesters made it more difficult for Black stories to be told in Hollywood.


GOLDBERG: The protest was so ridiculous. And unbeknownst to them, they cost Black actors in Hollywood a good five or six years' worth of work because, of course, nobody wanted to put together a Black cast. So they cost us dearly. They cost us a lot.

HARRIS: Margaret Avery.

AVERY: I suffered with the backlash because I didn't have another film to go to. I mean, the white films didn't allow me work. I couldn't even get a manager after "Color Purple." You know, they said, well, what can we do with you? And I wanted to say, well, can you get me work (laughter)?

HARRIS: You were nominated for an Oscar. Like...

AVERY: I didn't work for two years after "Color Purple." And the thing that saved me financially was the college lecture circuit. I made more on the college lecture circuit than I did in "Color Purple."

HARRIS: It was quite clear. "The Color Purple" was groundbreaking, a turning point for Black women in film history. But had its critics just cut off the nose to spite the face? In raising hell over its depiction of Black life, had it actually held progress back for Black people in Hollywood? I'm sure it probably didn't help. But in the 1980s, studio executives would find any excuse to avoid hiring Black performers not named Eddie Murphy. They didn't even need an excuse really. A movie like "The Color Purple" could be treated like a Haley's (ph) comet, an outlier striking at just the right moment every once in a while.

Film critic Armond White feels that despite Spielberg's now proven chops as a dramatic director, "The Color Purple" doesn't get its due from his peers in other cinematic institutions.

WHITE: You know, film societies, film museums and - they ought to be showing and teaching "The Color Purple" constantly because it is such an artistically rich movie. But they don't because it's a movie about Black people. And in our film culture - our film culture gatekeepers don't like Black joy. They only want movies where Black people are brutalized and depressed and sad and victimized. They don't want movies about Black people where their humanity is defined by their capacity for joy and love and desire. It's part of what's so beautiful in "The Color Purple."

HARRIS: Ironically, of course, the movie's harshest critics didn't see joy in the movie, only brutality and depression. But I think enough time has passed now that the legacy of "The Color Purple" outshines the controversy it endured. It helps that we no longer have to wait a year or two or three to get a major movie starring and directed by Black people. The fall of 2022 features two blockbuster action dramas fronted by Black women whose characters confront grief while kicking butt - "The Woman King" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." So we've got options now.

Margaret Avery again.

AVERY: What I love about film now is that - and I see a lot of things with people of color that I don't want to watch and that I think take us back and are really stupid. But, hey, guess what? I can change the channel and go to something else. You couldn't do that 35 years ago. You were stuck watching that one thing.

HARRIS: Online, the movie lives another life, affectionately repurposed and memed (ph) for internet conversations. That image of Celie, her arm outstretched as she curses Mister - that was tailor made for Black Twitter.


GOLDBERG: (As Celie Johnson) Everything you done to me, already done to you.

HARRIS: I think it also helps that the 2005 musical adaptation, which hews more closely to Alice Walker's novel and was written by three Black creators - that's kept Celie, Shug and all the other memorable characters reliably in the cultural zeitgeist for nearly two decades now, without as much of a hand-wringing as there had been in the 20 years prior. There have been two Tony-winning Broadway productions, multiple national tours and other productions in other countries across the globe. A movie adaptation of it is forthcoming with a Black director and screenwriter at the helm. Alice Walker has had positive things to say about the stage musical. Here she is speaking with "Democracy Now!" in 2012.


WALKER: Yes, it became a really wonderful musical. Some of the things I had wanted more of in the film we were able to put into the musical.


WALKER: Development of the relationship between Celie and Shug, which is so precious and beautiful in the musical.

HARRIS: Over the years, performers like Fantasia Barrino and LaChanze have gone on to play Celie on stage. And they've articulated the staying power of Walker's characters.


LACHANZE: This woman, this - what she embodies, what she represents in our history of the struggle, the pain, the weight that has been put on this young girl, yet she's able to survive and not only be healed, but heal others is a huge part of our lineage, a huge part of our history.


LACHANZE: (As Celie, singing) Got my eyes, though they don't see as far now. They see more about how things really are now.

HARRIS: And in the end, those who appreciated parts or all of Steven Spielberg's version of the book wound up overshadowing the critics, if we're judging purely on dedicated fan base. It just took some time and distance from the chaos and alarmism of the '80s for that largely Black female and queer fan base to become the consensus.

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy now concedes he might have been a little too quick to dismiss how many Black women responded to the movie at the time.

MILLOY: My mother was from a little town, a little farm in South Carolina. And so she knew. She knew how people are when - you know, there were men who were abusive. So her objection was that I was too willing to dismiss the fact of abuse, as if it did not happen. I just was not ready to deal with it. What I learned from her is that there were women who were really - who were ready to deal with it, who wanted it out in the open, this big secret thing. That movie did things for people who had never seen images like that before and who knew that there were secrets that had never been revealed before.

HARRIS: But even if "The Color Purple" has been accepted into the unofficial Black cultural canon, unfortunately, many of the same gendered schisms that plagued its initial release persist in the present day. I can't help but think about the high-profile Black women who have accused Black men of harming them in some way in the years since "The Color Purple" - for starters, Dee Barnes, Kelis, Rihanna and recently Megan Thee Stallion, who's accused rapper and former friend Tory Lanez of shooting her in the foot in 2020.


MEGAN THEE STALLION: Tory shot me. Stop trying to come on the internet acting like a Black woman - a grown-ass Black woman - really got any reason to be lying on another grown-ass Black man when all the shit fucked up going on in the world right now.

HARRIS: In each of those cases, they faced public harassment and mockery and been accused of making their stories up for clout or money. Many of their loudest critics on the subject seem to be men. Their fiercest defenders tend to be women. Each time a news story like this pops up, it's kind of like "The Color Purple" debates all over again - Black women empathizing with another's painful experience while many Black men dismiss it and shout it down, except it's playing out over real-life incident rather than a fictional drama and largely over social media. Different side, same coin. Frankly, it's kind of depressing. And this isn't unique to Black culture. As we saw with #MeToo, women across races and ethnicities face dismissal in response to domestic abuse.

Margaret Avery again.

AVERY: When they were showing the film at these different fundraisers - you're talking about Argentina and France and, I mean, everywhere - it was like a wonderful experience for me. But those women who came out, you could see they had - they could relate to that film regarding the abusive relationship because they had tears in their eyes. Some of them were sobbing. And I feel blessed to be remembered with that film because I haven't done - in my experience, I mean, there hasn't been another film that I've done that has touched me as well as much as that character.

HARRIS: Perhaps that's another reason "The Color Purple" endures. Even if you're unaware of all the hot takes it initially inspired, it translates in any era. I first encountered the movie in bits and pieces on cable TV when I was a young adult. And eventually, I read the book in either high school or college. And even then, in the early aughts, it felt to me like a work that was both of its time and way ahead of its time. The arguments that took place in those brightly lit TV studios, bustling college campuses and everywhere in between, they tapped into where we were in the '80s and anticipated where we'd be now, nearly 40 years later, for better and perhaps for worse.

"The Color Purple" is far from perfect. But I think the essence of Alice Walker's rich characters shine through whatever parts of the movie don't quite work. How can you discount what the storytelling has meant to so many people around the world after all these years?


HARRIS: This episode was written by me, Aisha Harris, and produced by Mike Katzif and Veralyn Williams, with additional production support from Schuyler Swenson. Bilal Qureshi is our editor. The interviews with Armond White and Courtland Milloy were recorded in 2018. Jacqueline Bobo's 1988 article "Black Women's Responses To 'The Color Purple'" was a huge aid in my research. Thanks to Mary Glendinning and Nicolette Khan for their research support and to Stu Rushfield for engineering this episode. Some of the music you heard here is by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Jessica Reedy, Lauren Gonzalez, Micah Ratner, Emily Bogle, Brendan Crump and Linda Holmes. Our senior director is Beth Donovan, and our VP of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Aisha Harris, and this has been Screening Ourselves, a special series from NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR.

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