Other media perspectives

The ‘black experience has been variously represented on stage and screen.

More on Plantation films?

More on Blaxploitation and Crossover films?

More on Dominant ideology encoding and the gaze?

Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985)

Walker’s novel was adapted into a film in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Danny Glover as Albert, and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia.

Although Alice Walker worked on the film as a consultant, she had mixed feelings about the adapted screenplay and some of the alterations and omissions of important themes in Spielberg’s production.

The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards but won none, which caused controversy and accusations that the finished product was an indication of Hollywood’s predominant white perspectives and ideologies about African-Americans.

Critical responses to the film

Although it was a box office hit, critical response to Spielberg’s film was mixed:

Some negative views:

  • The film appears to shift the responsibility for slavery from the white planter class to the black male with images of Mr_ on a horse, supervising field hands
  • Mr_’s house is a replica of an Old South mansion
  • Celie is raped then separated from her children, which happened historically as a result of white domination, but in this film is the result of abuse by her black husband
  • Mister overworks and beats the black women who live on his land
  • Black men are depicted either as insensitive brutes or as inept, weak clowns
  • The character of Sofia, strong and courageous in Walker’s novel, becomes both a figure of fun and also a stereotypical black victim. Note particularly the undignified way in which she is portrayed when she faces the white mob
  • Cross-cut scenes of African initiation rites with Celie’s impulse to murder Mr_ with a razor, and later shots of the juke joint and Shug’s red dress, are invented devices that depict serious African cultural practices as savage or primitive
  • Celie and Shug’s lesbian relationship is repressed in the film but foregrounded in the novel. By inferring that the women are little more than sisters when they sit on a bed and kiss briefly, the importance of the relationship is glossed over and its impact lost
  • Black gospel and church music is signified as ‘good’ while jazz, blues and rock and roll are stereotypically ‘bad’
  • The reconciliation between Shug and her preacher father is a cinematic invention. In the novel Shug breaks with her father and the church because the church interprets God as male and white. In the film, Shug is depicted as embracing the values that Walker in fact rejects through Shug’s character.

Some positive views

  • Black women are portrayed as strong, increasingly articulate and courageous
  • The film addressed the way that many black women suffered brutality at the hands of their husbands
  • Many female viewers admired the way that the film enabled them to share a common cultural background and experience
  • Spielberg’s adaptation remained faithful to the novel’s central themes
  • Black women in particular felt that the film’s accuracy enabled them to experience a sense of identification with previous generations of oppressed black females
  • Spielberg’s cinematography is dramatic and effective, using symbolism such as the mailbox, clapping hands and sunlight, together with lavish sets and an effective musical score to enhance the emotional impact of the film.

The Color Purple as a musical 

Original production

A musical version of Walker’s novel, based largely on Spielberg’s film, was adapted for the stage and work-shopped in 2004 by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia with music by Allee Willis, Stephen Bray and Brenda Russell, who also wrote the lyrics.

Broadway opening

The show transferred to Broadway in December 2005 and ran until February 2008 with over nine hundred performances, recouping its initial investment in its first year.

Produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein and Oprah Winfrey, who was also an investor, the Broadway production was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and five Outer Critics Circle Awards in 2006, but won only one Tony which was awarded to Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, known professionally as LaChanze, who played Celie and received the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress.

From 2007 The Color Purple toured extensively in America and enjoyed a successful debut on the London stage in 2013.

The Color Purple as a radio adaptation

In 2008 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of the novel in ten 15-minute episodes as a Woman's Hour serial, with Nadine Marshall as Celie. The script was by Patricia Cumper, and in 2009 the production received the Sony Radio Academy Awards Silver Drama Award.


Both black and white audiences have been divided in their responses to Walker’s novel and also to film and stage adaptations of her work:

  • Many black American men reacted negatively to the book and the film because both were seen as biased and inaccurate in the negative way that central black male characters are portrayed. Some black male critics even denounced Walker as a class traitor and a liar
  • Feminist and social activists have criticised the novel for failing to present the lesbian theme in a sufficiently political framework or for the way that Celie and Shug surrender to the ‘American Dream’ by accepting capitalist and heterosexual values when they establish their business venture
  • More benevolent critics suggest that The Color Purple is an emancipation novel that places both its male and female characters in a setting that allows both to strive for a life that is fulfilled and achieved by the belief in human nature and the power of love.
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