In 2019, when any unknown Democratic candidate declared they were running for president, another popular line from the film — “Harpo, who dis woman?” — was posted on social media above a link to a news story announcing the new entrant’s candidacy. And last February, Beyoncé sent an Instagram birthday greeting to her Destiny’s Child bestie Kelly Rowland that quoted the hand-clap rhyme between sisters Celie and Nettie by writing to Rowland “us never part . . . makidada.” In 2015, rapper Kendrick Lamar referenced one of the character Sofia’s most popular lines, “All my life I had to fight,” on the introduction to his resistance-themed anthem “Alright.”
In recognition of the movie’s continued salience, Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies rereleased the original film in theaters Sunday for one day only, giving moviegoers another chance to see it on the big screen.
“The cultural impact is undeniable,” said Latesha Williams, co-founder of the card game Black Card Revoked, which asks questions about African American popular culture and incorporates nearly a half-dozen queries about “The Color Purple.” In the game, the film is tied with the 1995 Ice Cube comedy “Friday” for most movie references.
“The film is in every black person’s collection,” said Williams, 36. “People get that being African American comes with its circumstances — good, bad, beautiful, painful, ugly and amazing. And this film captured all of that, at times with humor.”
When "The Color Purple" was released in theaters in 1985, about eight of my friends and I hopped a local bus to a neighborhood theater in Pittsburgh.
The show was sold out, and we had to split up to find seats. I sat in the second row, with my neck craning up for nearly three hours staring at the screen. Two of my buddies sat on the sticky floor in the back of the theater.
I was just 15 then, and it was my first time seeing so many black people on the big screen. I was mesmerized watching Whoopi Goldberg’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Celie as she aged from 20-something to an elderly woman. Her movements dramatically slowed, her hair grayed, but her brown face was just as smooth. That transformation reminded me of my grandmother and the circle of ladies she met with weekly to quilt, gossip and laugh out loud.
I remember snickering as I watched Oprah Winfrey’s debut film performance as Sofia, Celie’s stepdaughter-in-law. My immaturity and youth caused me to laugh during a scene where the wind blew up her skirt, exposing her legs and underwear. Sofia had just been knocked unconscious by an armed white man because she had responded “Hell no” to Miss Millie, a white woman who had suggested Sofia work as her maid. The pain, brutality and degradation were lost on me then.
After the movie, I recall how unusually quiet my friends and I were on the bus ride home that evening. We had never seen a film so disturbing, fascinating and amazing all at the same time.
More than a decade later, I saw it again through more mature eyes. The film registered to me as a story of survival, strength, love of self and others, family, and forgiveness. Multiple, interwoven story lines, complicated characters and unforgettable dialogue were all based on the poetic novel by Alice Walker, who had earned a Pulitzer Prize for fiction before director Steven Spielberg, producer Quincy Jones and others cinematized her work.
The movie was immediately popular, staying in U.S. theaters for 21 weeks and grossing more than $142 million worldwide, but it wasn’t without controversy.
I watched the Oscars that night on television only to see the film shut out of every category, while the Robert Redford-Meryl Streep romance “Out of Africa,” which also nabbed 11 Oscar nominations that year, won the most trophies.
Comedian and nationally syndicated radio show host Rickey Smiley was also a teenager when the film was released. Smiley, 51, said the film's characters and theme don't age. "You learn something new every time you watch it," he said. "There were a lot of lessons to be learned. But for me, the main lessons were restraint and discretion."
Smiley said watching Celie suffer abuse without lashing out and instead waiting patiently until things turned around was poignant. Smiley calls the movie Hollywood’s “I Won’t Complain” film, referring to the popular gospel song that celebrates God’s sustaining power through life’s hardships. “It makes folks in church feel some kind of way and want to take off running. That’s what this film does,” Smiley said. “You watch it and once it gets to your favorite scene, you want to take off and start hollering.”
The movie, focused on the travails of Celie, who was physically and sexually abused by men most of her life, has had staying power — even spawning two Broadway musicals — because it inspires those who have felt invisible, powerless or marginalized, film historians say.
But for many African Americans, the film also celebrates that quiet, strategic strength so many use to survive.
“It speaks to that resilience. That narrative of no matter how many things come at you, you are still able to pick yourself up. That feeling is universal and timeless,” said Montré Missouri, director of Howard University’s master of fine arts in film program.
Spielberg’s directorial vision, Missouri said, and his ability to extract complicated performances out of relatively novice actors made the film a classic. “His direction brought so much humanity to black life.”
But the memorable storytelling begins with Walker’s characters. “It’s the humanity of those characters . . . that’s why we quote them, because they were real to us,” Missouri said. “Those people lived with us. The characters stay with you. We have so much empathy for them. We identify with them. We quote them like they are members of our family.”
The film also revealed how people in pain themselves inflict pain on others. And that pain often originates in the home. When the film was released, what seemed to be overlooked by those protesting the movie was how Danny Glover’s abusive character Mister, was actually still a weak little boy desperately trying to please his father by emulating his abusive, archaic and misogynistic behavior and ideologies. The few scenes between Glover and Old Mister, played by the late Adolph Caesar, were pivotal. They offered a glimpse of the source of Mister’s treatment of Celie and how such behavior — unless recognized and changed — can be passed down through generations, just as Mister tried to do with his own son Harpo.
Wendell Martin, 52, said the film wasn’t the kind of movie he would sit around in the barber shop and talk about with the brothers. But it was impactful and memorable. “It was a wonderful movie about hope,” he said.
For Martin, a principal in Waldorf, Md., who was raised in Louisiana, the story’s Southern setting created a cast of characters he could identify with growing up. Martin fell in love with Celie and watched how she quietly sat back and studied people. She taught him that sometimes the strongest people are the quietest.
He planned to go see the movie in the theater Sunday and expected it to again touch all emotions. “But as a person who likes to laugh, some stuff was funny as hell,” Martin said.
Ellisha “Teapot” McKinney, 49, of Northeast Washington said she watches “The Color Purple” every year on television and thinks she has seen it at least 400 times. She was glad to have the opportunity to see it once more in the theater on Sunday.
“It’s such a powerful story of love between family and sisters and mother and children,” she said. The reunion scenes are the most emotional she says. “I cry every single time. I start getting choked up when Celie yells for Nettie. And I am definitely crying, straight-up and-down-for-real tears, when she is hugging her children.”
With each viewing, McKinney said, she notices small details that she realizes helped carry the story such as the brightly colored costumes and changing hairstyles of the women that reflect the time periods in the film.
And for McKinney, who works as a vocal clinician, the film’s use of music — from jazz to blues to gospel — was another powerful way of steering the narrative.
How many movies that came out in 1985 are still relevant and being shown? McKinney wonders.
“The characters are all relatable. We’re still fighting in clubs. There is still adultery. People are still going to juke joints. We still have issues with our parents. People are still being shunned for being different. People are still being bullied. Black women are still not being heard or counted, in society or in the workplace,” she said. “This film will outlive us all and will continue to inspire generations long after us.”