I could not approach "The Color Purple" in a neutral state of mind. In fact, I was prepared to stand up and clap simply because the movie had even been made. For the first time since "A Soldier's Story," Hollywood had made a serious film about blacks. And for a dozen years before "Soldier's Story" was released, the movie industry had continuously overlooked material from which potentially good black dramas could be made, preferring instead to produce mainly comedies or films that promoted stereotypical and negative images of blacks.
Because Alice Walker's novel did not deal in stereotypes and was, in fact, an absolutely amazing literary work, I had kept an eye on the various stages through which it went as it became a movie. Not only was I encouraged that Steven ("E.T.") Spielberg undertook the film's direction, calling it "the biggest challenge of my career," but I even liked the way Whoopi Goldberg went after the starring role. She sent her resume to Alice Walker!
Like a million other eager midwives, I anxiously awaited the coming of this movie. Last week I saw it, and I was not disappointed. Indeed, when it concluded, I stood up and cheered.
It's a great film. Spanning 40 years, it is the story of a black American family in the rural South beginning in the early 1900s. Starring Goldberg as the main character, Celie, and Danny Glover as her bullying husband, Mr.---, this troupe of actors unleashes a spate of emotions on the screen like a well-rehearsed repertoire company. Although its themes are often dismal -- rape, incest and brutal male violence against women -- paradoxically, it is really a film about the purity and depth of love.
The love between Celie and her sister, Nettie, stretches over years and continents like a band. It holds them together from the days they fought off their father/rapist and played among purple daisies in Georgia, over decades of absence when Celie thought her sister might even be dead.
Although Celie reveals the depth of her self-hate when she advises her husband's son to beat his free-spirited wife, Sofia, in order to control her, Celie begins to discover the meaning of self-love with Shug, her husband's mistress, and ultimately, the meaning of freedom.
In many ways, this film would not be such an event if it were not for the fact that so few black films in general, and particularly films about black women, are produced by Hollywood. But because it is so important, it has prompted a lot of debate and controversy.
One of the issues most readily to appear has been charges by several black men that the film poorly depicts black men, even prompting several people to picket the film's opening in Los Angeles last week.
Not only is Celie's father her rapist, he subsequently sells their children, and she is cruelly abused by her husband for more than two decades.
"Of all the black books to make into a movie," said one protesting man, "they would choose one that so poorly depicted black men."
Echoed a prominent black businessman, "It is degrading to black men and makes us all look like wife beaters and rapists."
One of the movie's stars, Adolph Caesar, defended the film as "just a movie." But Glover noted that while the movie is about a specific family, the battering of women is rampant -- witness the number of shelters that exist around the country for them today.
While depicting a particular black situation at a given point in time, this film is not an effort to degrade all black men. Sexism and brutality aren't exclusive traits among blacks by any means. But the unhappy fact is that this kind of black man has been -- and alas still is -- part of our people and culture. Why not use this film as a springboard to address those issues and begin to move beyond them?
Moreover, many black male characters are multidimensional. In his relationship with Shug, Mr.--- is gentle and tender. And like several other male characters, he is partly redeemed by the end of the movie.
Still other blacks have expressed dismay that director Spielberg, a white man, made the film, rather than a black. But the two things that sell in Hollywood are names and bank accounts. Spielberg has both, and he was quick to buy the rights to the property. Until recently, all but a handful of blacks were pariahs in Hollywood, but breakthroughs of the past year or two demonstrate that if blacks get organized, they can have a dynamic effect on American film.
Whatever that ultimate effect, we have to be careful not to rush to judgment on "The Color Purple," for the reality is that it would not be so painful if it did not have a basis in reality. For, one thing is clear: When a raw nerve is plucked like a gut string, it can make us cry for joy or laugh with pain.