In the opening scenes of "The Color Purple":
Celie gives birth. Her father gives away the baby, only minutes old. He's already raped Celie. Then he gives her away, to a man who beats her. And who separates her from her sister, the one person she loves.
On its controversial way to a possible domination of the Academy Award nominations today, "The Color Purple" has touched off bitterness and protest in many corners of the black community -- bitterness that shows no sign of diminishing.
In the past seven weeks Steven Spielberg's cinematic treatment of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has grossed $39.2 million and been hailed by critics -- and many black moviegoers -- as one of the 10 best films of the year. Yet it has also touched a raw nerve in the black community, where many charge it depicts black men only as violent, insensitive and cruel and perpetuates a stereotype of degraded manhood.
The film was picketed by black men and women when it opened in Los Angeles, has been informally boycotted by many blacks there and in other cities and remains a source of controversy both public and private.
Writing in the New York Daily News, columnist Earl Caldwell said, " 'The Color Purple' can make you see red. That's especially true if you are a man and you happen to be black. There is not much in the movie you want to see." Frances Beal, writing in the California newspaper Frontline, said, "a particular discomfort" with "Purple" "is understandable . . . A film which depicts the brutalization of a black woman by all the men in her life . . . can easily end up supporting the view that backward social relations within the family are the main problem with black America."
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In Washington, where lines for the film have been as long as in any city, radio and television interview shows have focused on the controversy and cocktail parties hum with it. Howard University's counseling office sponsored a forum on the film last night and the school has another scheduled for Feb. 14. Talk of "Purple" is expected to surface at a series of seminars on blacks in American cinema this month at the University of the District of Columbia.
The next issue of Black Film Review, published in Washington and due out at the end of the month, will include a critical forum from several perspectives on the movie.
This is by no means a monolithic debate. Some black men admire "Purple" and see it, as do many black women, as a story about women surviving personal imprisonment. Other black women agree that it is a step back for the image of black people. But what is being heatedly discussed is the characterizations of black men as cruel, unaffectionate, domineering, slap-happy oafs. While few dispute the fact that such men exist, the concern is that the power of the screen and the relative rarity of film characterizations of blacks make the characters seem universal.
"I offer no excuses for the kinds of men that Walker wrote about," says television producer and columnist Tony Brown. "They are, for whatever reason, sad examples. But many of us who are male and black are too healthy to pay to be abused by a white man's movie focusing on our failures. And because so few films are produced with black themes, it becomes the only statement on black men." "It is a very dangerous film," says Leroy Clark, a law professor at Catholic University. "The men are raping, committing incest, speaking harshly, separating people from their families or they are incompetent, they can't fix a house or cook a simple meal. That is a lie to history . . . It reinforces the notion of black men as beasts." Says Roscoe Nix, president of the Montgomery County NAACP: "There was not a healthy black male in the movie."
The women of "Purple" have also been criticized as being not the best of role models. But they are allowed to change, sometimes in grand fashion, and they stand up to the rules of the world that has trapped them. Their story is so compelling, however, that every demonstration of mental and physical muscle is cheered heartily by audiences and few people leave the theater dry-eyed.
The debate over the effect of black characterizations in film is as old as "The Birth of a Nation." What makes the uproar over "Purple" remarkable is that it comes at a time when black characters are seen in both greater number and greater diversity in the visual media than ever before. After decades of spotty visibility on film, except for rare roles as domestics, dancers or savages, black movie roles have evolved through the "black saint" image of Sidney Poitier films in the '60s and the "Superfly" "blaxploitation" films of the '70s to something in the 1980s approaching dramatic parity with whites in diversity if not in number.
In addition to dominating such movie treatments as "A Soldier's Story" and "An Officer and a Gentleman", sympathetic black characters are omnipresent nightly on American television in everything from commercials and dramatic series to situation comedies. "The Cosby Show" is presently the nation's top-rated television show, reaching some 58.5 million viewers weekly with its highly praised portrait of a strong and intensely human black family.
So why isn't "Purple" looked on as just a story in the Southern Gothic genre, no more unusual in its treatment of rural blacks than William Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell were in their depiction of rural whites?
"One of the most serious problems that the black middle class faces these days is image," adds Leroy Clark. "Blacks are thought to be good basketball players but the questions remain can we be good physicists. Those image problems came from the reality that we were kept out of those activities but the image problem remains because of the way the media treats us."
"I was discomforted by it", says David Nicholson, editor of the Black Film Review. "I consider myself a liberal person," but the movie made it "uncomfortable to sit in a theater with thousands of white strangers."
Film historian Donald Bogle thinks part of the problem is the one-dimensional character of Mister, played by Danny Glover. "In the novel you see a definite change in his character and you can connect to his oppression in the white world. He can't be himself so he asserts himself with the black woman. He has to prove himself with some kind of power. In the movie . . . that is not explained and many people see him as an insensitive, callous black man . . . For the white audience he is just a reinforcement of something they feel anyway. It is part of an old damage that has never gone away."
For many black men, that perceived reinforcement was worsened by the fact that "Purple" was written by a black woman. Tension over how black women portray black men has been rife since the mid-1970s publication of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," which dealt with the often stormy and fragile relationships between black men and women and the notion of many black men that black women are moving ahead in professions at their expense.
The latest outcry actually started in 1982 with the publication of "The Color Purple", in which a young woman named Celie in the rural South is raped by a man she believes to be her father. He gives away their two children and forcibly marries her to a man named Mister who separates her from her sister. It takes Shug, the woman that Mister loves and brings into the house he shares with Celie, to show Celie she is her own person and can give in to her emotions. The two women have a love affair and eventually leave Mister's homestead. Interwoven through Celie's 30-year personal odyssey are the lives of Harpo, Mister's son, whom Celie tells to beat his wife Sophia. Sophia, played in the movie by Oprah Winfrey, ends up virtually enslaved to the family of the white mayor after she sasses him downtown.
However grim its plot outline, "Purple" celebrates the tenacity and love of black women. But it only belatedly shows that men, particularly Mister, can change. And that, to many black men, smacks of betrayal.
"Black men feel they are always under attack," says Alvin Pouissant, a psychiatrist and adviser to "The Cosby Show." Such feelings, he says, have been exacerbated recently with media attention to teen-age pregnancy and the fragility of the black family. Black men, he says, believe a characterization of them like Walker's "is considered the real thing by white people because it is coming from a black woman. They think the whites think, 'Well, this is an inside story, and there must be something wrong with you cats.' " The viewer of the film, he says, dismisses the unreal character of whites in "Purple," "but you can't dismiss the images of blacks."
"I think the criticism by black males is a false issue," says Nicholson. "I think there are genuine problems and no one can deny there are men like that in our community. But both book and movie are about love and the possibility of change. They are about love and redemption."
George Dalley, staff director for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), agrees. Even though he doesn't find the movie perfect, he says, "I don't think it is particularly unkind to the black male. It is about the human spirit and a person prevailing."
Adds Donald Bogle: "What pulls you to the picture are the women themselves. We have never in the history of American film seen black women on the screen like this. It has to strike us all. It is like a moviemaker took Hattie McDaniels and said, 'We are telling your story.' "
Audrey Chapman, a family therapist who organized a seminar on the movie at Howard last night, says she saw in the movie almost every syndrome black women and men have discussed in counseling sessions. "The poor communication and lack of support, the projecting of anger, sadness and disillusionment of personal hard times onto someone else in today's world -- we see men doing that to women who project it to their children. And then the bonding of women to survive," says Chapman. "The men who are reacting negatively have questions about who they are and they view women today as being out in the forefront."
Poet E. Ethelbert Miller of Howard University believes that many blacks simply fail to understand the film due to a lack of critical training. "It shows our lack of maturity as filmgoers," he says. "Since we don't see ourselves on film that often, we want it to be entertaining. We don't want reality. We think everything should reflect well on the race."