(Trigger warning: Mentions of violence and sexual assault)
“I’m poor, Black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here! I’m here!” Celie, the protagonist in The Color Purple, says these words as she reclaims the authority that had been literally beaten out of her. Set in the early 1900s, The Color Purple is nothing short of a masterpiece, addressing issues that are still very much relevant today, with a primary focus on the mistreatment of Black women.
Both the 1985 and 2023 versions of the film follow Celie, a Black teenager who learns to reject the paralyzing preconceptions imposed on her by others. Celie narrates her life in painfully honest letters to God. These are prompted when her abusive father, Alphonso, warns her, “You better not never tell nobody but God” after raping her, resulting in her second pregnancy at the age of fourteen. When the widowed Mister (also known as Albert) proposes marriage to Celie’s younger sister, Nettie, Alphonso persuades him to take Celie instead, resulting in an abusive marriage. The rest of the film depicts her life’s traumas and eventual triumph.
Celie’s relationship with her sister is the driving force behind the movie’s plot. Growing up in an abusive household, Nettie was Celie’s sole source of comfort, giving her a reason to fight and someone to protect—an almost maternal figure. Nettie, educated and independent of men, owes much of her identity to Celie’s sacrifices. When the sisters are forcefully separated by Albert, Celie is forever changed, as if losing a third child, vividly depicting how Black women are often coerced into maternal roles while enduring belittlement in their homes.
After Nettie’s departure, Celie undergoes a visible transformation. She looks down habitually and conceals her smile as if to say she is unworthy of others’ gazes, and her smile isn’t pretty enough to be seen. Then enters Shug, who teaches Celie to love her body, embrace her femininity, and wear her smile as a badge of honor. Shug consistently lifts Celie’s head until she learns to do it herself.
Alice Walker penned The Color Purple in 1982, which was later adapted into a film in 1985 and later transformed into a musical in 2023. The two most powerful scenes in The Color Purple’s storyline are when Nettie and Celie are separated, and when Nettie stands up to Albert.
In the 1985 film, these scenes were executed with exquisite beauty, transporting the viewer into the characters’ roles and eliciting a deep emotional connection to them. The 1985 version can only be accurately described as powerful.
However, the 2023 version falls short of expectations, with scenes feeling rushed and subpar acting from the start. The bond between Nettie (Ciara) and Celie (Fantasia Barrino) lacks authenticity, displaying an awkwardness between the actors. When the separation scene unfolds–A scene where two sisters, whose love has been their sole refuge, are forcibly separated to venture into life alone– the actors convey only a slight sense of sadness at best. Similarly, when Celie stands up to Albert, the actress appears merely pleased, failing to capture the gravity of the situation. Celie reclaims her authority after years of being beaten, raped, and having her sense of self taken away. In such powerful scenes, viewers must be completely immersed in the profound emotions and messages conveyed.
As a musical, the 2023 version of The Color Purple was well done; it was a true embodiment of lyrical genius, but the acting and script were disappointing, especially given the high-profile actors on the cast list. It appears that the cast was chosen solely based on their vocal abilities.
The Color Purple’s storyline is nothing short of extraordinary, and its underlying message far exceeds expectations. It draws attention to a variety of societal issues that were prevalent in the early 1900s and continue to be relevant today. While it has a somber tone, it forces us to consider the world we live in. I strongly recommend watching it; just make sure it’s the 1985 version and remember that “it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”