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“The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple


The beginning of Alice Walker’s masterpiece, The Color Purple, has Celie, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, talking to God about how her father sexually assaults her night after night.

First he put this thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold of my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. (1)

The visceral nature of the moment, of the rape as told by a teenage Black girl who experiences it, is meant to be an attack on the reader’s soul and sensibility. The reality and horror that this took place, and still takes place around the globe, is a figurative slap in the face, a wakeup call to all readers that sexual abuse happens to young women, and especially to young Black women, daily. Walker is putting her readers in Celie’s place: like her, readers are also supposed to get used to it or have become used to it. But, like Celie, readers who are now housed in her mind and her heart cannot get used to it. The violence is just too honest, raw, and brutal, and Walker forces her readers to experience the sickness and pain Celie feels every time her father sodomizes her, a feeling thousands of young Women of Color feel regularly but is rarely talked about in common American discourse and mass media because of the systemic racism and misogyny that reign over both. Alice Walker’s seminal work is thus revolutionary in that she writes about and sheds light on these horrendous suppressed realities that are differently adapted by Steven Spielberg.

Instead of being representative of the womanist movement, which deeply delves into domestic violence against Black girls, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple is dependent on Hollywood genre conventions and audience appeasement to get his (not Walker’s) message across; thus, a de-politicization process takes place, and in turn, Walker’s direct confrontation with child abuse against Black girls is compromised. Spielberg’s The Color Purple, in other words, deals with race, the patriarchy and homosexuality in cursory ways rather than conversing and aligning itself with its predecessor as a distinctly womanist text.


All modes of discourse are political, political being defined in this essay as the use of language-based rhetorical persuasion through one or several channels of mass-mediated communication which creates communities and will allow those communities to understand, converse and criticize within, and outside, of those said communities. Whether it stems from the dominating ideological standpoint of the world at that moment or from the political movements that try and fight those same ideological regimes—all is political. When speaking about literature and film as separate entities, it is easier to recognize each medium’s political agenda on a case-by-case basis, but when literature gets translated or adapted into a film, the lines get blurred. Not only do storylines and characters disappear or get disregarded as extraneous, but the political stance of the original author and the text itself can become displaced to a damaging extent. In other words, de-politicization takes place, leaving the film version of the original text lacking and wanting of more. De-politicization can occur when the interpretation of language-based rhetorical persuasion gets somehow distorted or left to the wayside, improperly communicating the textual political messages that are written by a single author on behalf of an entire community or people. This article explores a case study of such distortion or discarding. This is not to say, however, that adapted films are automatically or inherently apolitical or that literature loses its political agenda once adapted. Films frequently follow ideological patterns of dominance and oppression against the written word; thus, films must be political, if one were to agree that ideology is comprised of the dominating political agenda.

How, then, can a film adaptation lead to de-politicization Once a literary work is adapted into a screenplay, the literary work becomes a motion picture, and the motion picture having its own political agenda, leaves the original text’s community behind. The Color Purple was originally a womanist novel that, among other things, spoke to the horrors of child abuse against young girls in the Black community, became a film about the entirety of the Black experience from the limited perspective of a White male film director deeply embedded in traditional Hollywood filmmaking. It is now time to look at The Color Purple as a de-politicized text, using Walker’s discussions about womanism and Black child abuse as being the antithesis of the suppression of Black girls within Spielberg’s comparatively traditional, White, patriarchal adaptation of Walker’s text.

Not Feminist: Womanist

The Color Purple is not a feminist work in the universalizing sense, although it is regularly looked at as such. Dror Abend-David in his article on The Color Purple claims it would be an “occupational hazard” if one was to use pre-twentieth century texts as a way of reading Walker’s masterpiece as feminist:

While feminist readings of pre-twentieth-century texts are necessarily aware of the fact that every work that is written either by a woman or about a woman enhances the possibility that women have spent as much time on this planet as men, it is the occupational hazard of contemporary readings […] that they may rely heavily on the notion of a feminist, feminine, and the female wilderness, and, in fact, not be twentieth century interpretations at all. They are, like any denial of the past, a repetition of pre-twentieth-century reflections, assertions, and social commentary. (13-14)


Deborah E. McDowell, based on her writing, would agree. In “Black Feminist Thinking,” McDowell also suggests there should be a “coloring” of black feminist thinking; that there is a politically charged and active group of Black feminists who have one common goal: to change the language of Black feminism into a theoretical language that recognizes the ever-changing world and lives of black women. Abend-David and McDowell, thus, state The Color Purple was written out of Walker’s experiences as an African-American woman, and theoretical readings and re-readings of Walker’s texts must be accurate. In other words, for some to suggest her writings goes only as far as African-Americanism or feminism, they would be lacking a true appreciation of Walker’s meaning and political agenda.

The Color Purple comes out of a movement Alice Walker calls “womanism,” a term she directly maps out with dignity and pride:

1).From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.)  A Black feminist or feminist of color. From the Black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another Black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2). Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counter-balance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually, and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans.: “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3). Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4). Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender. (In Search xi-xii)

Although the womanist movement consists of black members, it embraces all women and women’s cultures (whether sexually or platonically), thus suggesting it is more established and more comprehensive than feminism. Womanism is also a more traditional, historically-based movement than feminism. Walker claims womanism stems from Black folk tradition and its fascination with the maternal, a fascination that does not exist in the feminist movement, particularly amongst the creative. In feminism, the time and money to take care of a child lessens the emotional spirit and bank account of the woman writer; her creative spirit eventually suffers, thus affecting the text she is creating. In her essay “One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s)” from In Search of Our Gardens, Walker makes the claim that “some of us—artists, writers, poets, jugglers—[children are] perceived as threat, as danger, as enemy,” but childbirth and childrearing should be looked at as “political in the deepest sense” (362):

For those of us who both love and fear [children]--because of the work we do--but who would be lovers only, if we could, I propose and defend a plan of life that encourages one child of one’s own, which I consider meaningful--some might say necessary--digression within the work(s). (362)  

Womanism is about love for all women as well as all of humanity. Whether sexual or non-sexual love is involved, Walker claims an understanding and respect for women’s culture is necessary for womanism to thrive. As a womanist, one must not be exclusionary, one must recognize the patriarchy is a powerful entity but must see the matriarchy as equally influential. One can argue that Walker’s experience writing The Color Purple is recognition of this: the physical process of writing the novel took two years and was finished while Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, was home from school. The construction of character had already started but when:

My daughter arrived. Smart, sensitive, cheerful, at school most of the day, but quick with tea and sympathy on her return. My characters adored her. They saw she spoke her mind in no uncertain terms and would fight back when attacked. When she came home from school one day with bruises but said, You should see the other guy, Celie (raped by her stepfather as a child and somewhat fearful of life) began to reappraise her own condition. 

Rebecca gave her courage (which she always gives me)--and Celie grew to like her so much she would wait until three-thirty to visit me. So, just when Rebecca would arrive home needing her mother and a hug, there’d be Celie, trying to give her both. (359) 

The day Walker finished The Color Purple, Rebecca went to camp (360), becoming the inspiration for what may be considered one of the greatest pieces of literature in American history. With that said, however, Celie’s courage unfortunately stems from years of torture at the hands of Mister. Walker’s perceptions about womanism, about Black girls being womanish and about the revering of maternal love, get bastardized by White and Black male abusers who are successful at subjugating these proud Black women. As Dorothy Roberts states when writing about White slave owners, “…Black women’s childbearing in bondage was largely a product of oppression rather than an expression of self-definition and personhood” (32). Black girls were sexually assaulted and raped, impregnated, and then forced to have children that were oftentimes sold into slavery, their virtue and innocence violently unprotected and their ability to choose eradicated, thus leaving them devalued as human beings (40). Thus, both the mother and the child are not only slaves but “hostages” (53) of those keeping them in bondage as well as the system that allows for that bondage to exist. A contemporary example of this is the child welfare system, where a staggering number of Black children are stuck and where “Black families are overrepresented in child maltreatment reports, case openings, and the foster care population” (Roberts 6). The stereotype is that Black mothers (the fathers are not in the picture, according to lore) are neglectful, absent, uneducated, and sexually deviant; thus, impressionable on their developing children. Roberts adds, “When parents of children in foster care are portrayed as deranged and violent monsters, it becomes even more difficult for the public to believe that their children would want to maintain a relationship with them” (120).

In the case of The Color Purple, Walker, being a womanist trying to destigmatize the misconceptions of Black motherhood, begins with Celie as a young, inexperienced, naïve Black girl who cannot fully comprehend the situation she is in, but grows up to be a domestic abuse survivor, a good mother, and an independent Black woman. She is not a sexual deviant and she is not neglectful; she, instead and because of her circumstances, just does not have the resources and the resourcefulness to know all that is going on around here. The next several “Dear God” letters in Walker’s novel has Celie getting pregnant by Mister multiple times, losing children to death or the slave trade, getting beaten, and losing her ability to get her period, stealing away her childhood. Much of the abuse happens in the first pages of Walker’s novel, which is meant to evoke a visceral reaction, provide historical context, and illustrate that Black girls have often had virtually no agency over their own body and sexuality. The beginning of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, on the other hand, starts differently.

Textual Analysis

Walker’s success and critical acclaim led to Hollywood studios and filmmakers wanting to produce a film version of the popular and politically-charged book. Warner Brothers accomplished this goal, and in 1985 Steven Spielberg’s version of The Color Purple came out to both praise and criticism. Most of this praise and criticism came about because of Spielberg’s adaptation of the work as being a lack of understanding about the early African-American experience. Walker herself even published a series of letters sent to her about the film in The Same River Twice, showing the dichotomous responses of many a fan and academic. Much of the negative discourse surrounding the film is either about patriarchal issues associated with the cinematic text, the lack of a racial context in the original work, or the subversive disregarding of homosexuality that is part of Walker’s novel.

Most viewers immediately paid attention to the film’s discussions about race and sexuality, which is what Walker focuses her attention on in the book. Ironically, in the adaptation process, de-politicization takes place and what ends up getting lost is the womanist sensibility Walker attempts to relay in the original work as well as the patriarchal brutality that attempts to steal away that sensibility, even if the womanist loves all. Carl Dix, in a nebulous comment about The Color Purple, states: 

The movie is generally faithful to the book, and especially so to its main theme, although, as already touched on, the book is stronger in some ways. Some of this seems to stem from the relatively greater freedom that the novel form gave Alice Walker to pursue subthemes which greatly added to the complexity and richness of the story. 
(The Same River Twice 196) 

In essence, Spielberg and his crew produced a work focusing on commonly discussed cultural issues of the 1980s rather than the issues presented by the womanist movement, which at the time was more on the fringe, moving away from mainstream feminism and the movement’s ideals. That is not to say this oversight was intentional; some may not have even realized they were oppressing Walker’s original intent. In one interview, the screenwriter Menno Meyjes stated he thought it would be very easy to make The Color Purple into a film because of its “simplicity” and, although it had an unusual structure, because it dealt with only one person in one location with one point of view to work with (The Same River Twice 177). Walker may have accepted Meyjes’s hiring, but one can disagree the book only deals with one person and her point of view since Nettie explicitly has a voice that can be heard through her own letters to Celie; and, one can further disagree the book takes place only in one place: Celie and Albert’s home, Africa, Harpo’s Jook joint, Celie’s home and place of business, all are imperative to both the narrative and the womanist agenda of the writer.

The simplicity of the film is recognizable in Spielberg’s first scenes. In the film, Celie and Nettie, her sister, are frolicking in the fields, running and dancing and hugging. The music is light and idyllic. As seen in Figure 1, they are playing pattycake in the grass and among the purple flowers until their father comes and takes them back home to have supper.

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: 2:16 (Side 1). Celie and Nettie playing pattycake in a field of purple flowers.

Her stepfather says to Celie, who is pregnant, that she has the ugliest smile that he has ever seen. The abuse starts with a comment; it starts off with a verbal attack rather than a sexual one. The abusive comment is more digestible than watching the rape, which is a crime very rarely shown in American films during the 1980s due to the lingering effects of the Breen/Hayes Code that dominated Hollywood moviemaking up until 1960: “Seduction or rape could only be suggested and it must be important to the plot without it ever being explicitly shown.”  Not showing the rape also makes the film more sanitary for mass audiences and more in line with Spielberg’s reputation as an auteur generally devoted to directing tent-pole action films (Buckland, 84).

Soon after, Spielberg films the birth of Celie’s child, the father looming over Celie as she screams in agony and bleeds all over the floor. Childbirth, during the 1980s, is allowed to be shown. Not in completion, mind you; but it is acceptable to show the woman in the throes of agony, a most private moment between those in the room and the patient, as seen in Figure 2. And, rather than being explicitly stated at that moment, it is implied her father is the one who got Celie pregnant. In a way, the father is protected by the writer and the director by him not being exposed as a pedophile, rapist, and sadist. True, it is mentioned in the next scene by Celie that her father had two children with her, but the words “rape” and “assault” are not used. This aspect of the father’s identity is therefore somewhat censored and suggested rather than being openly discussed as in Walker’s text.

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: 3.33 (Side 1). Celie having her baby as Nettie helps and their father looms over them.


Because of this liberty or filmic obfuscation, Celie’s appalling and distressing experiences are not as placed at the forefront of the narrative as it is in Walker’s novel.  With her letters and because of her harrowing story, Celie provides an immense amount of commentary on how African-American children were treated by what was (and still is) an oppressive patriarchal regime, on how African-American women feel when treated poorly by their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, and on how one young Black girl can become a strong, independent Black woman with the help of powerful women figures in her life. Even later, when she is being physically tortured by Mister, it is due to the respective powers of Shug, Nettie and Sofia, and because of Celie’s ability to express her feelings through her writing, that she is able to, as Marc A. Christophe explains, “blossom into the wholeness of her being” (101).

Walker’s novel is not told in a linear way; Celie’s story is broken up into letters she is writing to God. She is battered and broken; thus so is her narrative. As Judy Elsley points out in her article ““Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent”: Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple,”  

Celie sees herself, both physically and emotionally, as living in irreconcilable fragments. She begins her narrative by writing “I am” which she then negates by crossing out (1), indicating her lack of self-confidence. We learn in the first few letters that her experience of life has been a series of tearings. She has been torn from her childhood by Pa’s incestuous rapes; torn from the two children she bears him when he takes them from her; and torn from the one person she loves, her sister Nettie, when she is forced to into a marriage she doesn’t want. Her life is a series of sacrifices--to Pa’s destructive desires, to Nettie’s safety, to Mister’s needs and brutality. Each time the sacrifice is the same: herself. Celie has been fragmented into pieces which are given away to others, mostly at the insistence of the men who dominate her. (164)

This fragmentation of the self, which can also be looked at as a forced disintegration of one’s womanhood, is something that took place while as a child. Pa is an African-American male who likes to use his power to “concretize” himself and “mold [women]” into subservient, sexual objects (Christophe 102). By killing Celie’s first child, and then by selling her second child to another couple, Pa also takes away her ability to be a mother, an important component to the womanist political movement. He inadvertently takes away her sex drive and her ability to menstruate (Walker 15); and later, Pa not only rips away Celie’s motherhood, but emotionally, spiritually and physically kills Celie’s mother by running her to the ground. The mother, on all levels, is intentionally made non-existent, womanhood is systematically destroyed, and the Black girl is left to be sexualized and sold to the highest bidder: Mister Albert.

Celie, however, is determined not to allow her father to completely destroy her womanhood, most especially as time passes. Although having to write her letters to God, a prominent patriarchal figure that eventually gets overshadowed by Nettie’s sisterly influence, Celie is able to express her true feelings through her writings. For example, it is as a teenager that Celie becomes exposed to a photograph of Shug Avery,

Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw. She more pretty then my mama. She bout ten thousand times more prettier then me. I see there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail[…] 
[…]. An all night long I stare at it. An now when I dream, I dream 
of Shug Avery. She be dress to kill, whirling and laughing. (Walker 16)

Celie recognizes her as a woman and as a sexual being, one to be looked at and praised for her beauty rather than used and assaulted because she is a woman. She fantasizes about Shug as Albert lays on top of her, about how she feels when Albert has sex with her. And, for a time, Shug becomes what E. Ellen Barker calls, a “surrogate mother, snuggling against Celie’s knees, the legacy of the healing process in generations of women and Shug’s place in that legacy is verbalized” (58). Shug is an important figurehead in Celie’s life, as shown in Figure 3, providing for her a smoother path in what is an otherwise rocky journey into womanhood.

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: 1.06.49 (Side 1). Celie enthralled by Shug’s overt sexuality and complete attention.

Celie’s letters also indicate she is interested in her own ability to articulate her feelings; her historical voice comes out in her letters. Readers can see how she enjoys writing as if she is speaking to God and then to Nettie. Celie is allowed to speak however she wants, and no one, not even her oppressive and devious patriarchs, can take that away from her. Her interest in the folk and the traditional also seems to heighten with her ability to quilt and to sew. As Elsley points out, “Celie’s decision to make the quilt is thus the turning point in her life because it is the first step to her empowerment via connection with women” (167). Elsley, in an astute observation, connects both Celie’s letter writing with her ability to quilt by calling both a form of “self-expression” and “discontinuous,” but, at the same time, weaving “a shapely narrative” (168) which eventually takes her to a feeling of wholeness. One must also recognize, however, that Celie’s quilt, although a perfect metaphor for Celie’s sojourn into womanhood, is very much a part of Walker’s personal history (In Search 358) and of womanist history. Sewing, gardening, cooking, letter writing, the mundane chores of everyday life, become creative modes of expression for domesticated African-American women and eventually become building blocks in what has become the historical framework that keeps womanism together as a movement and also provides Black women agency over their abilities and own bodies. 

Artistic expression does not only come in the form of domestic chores. As Zora Neale Hurston suggests, and as Walker demonstrates, singing and entertaining are beneficial creative traits in the historical make-up of womanism. This point is best represented in the character of Shug Avery, the ideal Black woman in Celie’s eyes, someone who has control over her own person and sexuality. Shug is an entertainer, a sexual being who flaunts her sexuality with ease and without reservation. She is strong and assertive, and she knows what she wants. Shug, because of her aggressiveness, has an immense amount of power over the men (and women) in her life. At one point in the text, Celie writes about a moment when Shug goes over to, and hugs, Sofia:

Shug say, Girl, you look like a good time, you do. That when I notice how Shug talk and act sometimes like a man. Men say stuff like that to women, Girl, you look like a good time. Women always talk bout hair and health. How many babies living or dead, or got teef. Not bout how some woman they hugging look like a good time. 
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (The Color Purple 81) 

Shug is to be looked up to because of her sexual, and literal, freedom. Moreover, she is an icon for the movement that is womanism. 

Another strong Black woman in The Color Purple is Sofia (Harpo’s wife), a strong womanist figure (for a time) in that she can handle herself against the abusive nature of her husband. She even goes as far as to blacken Harpo’s eye after one tussle causing Harpo to cry on Celie’s over-burdened shoulders (Walker 63). Physically, Sofia is a powerhouse. A most impressive scene has Sofia, a loving mother of five, on top of her roof fixing leaks and making shingles (64-66). Sofia is “initially the most powerful woman in the story,” (Bracks 85) and, yet, it is her strength and her utter admirable stubbornness that eventually gets her into serious trouble. She is made to realize that legal, political, and economic oppression constitute a much greater force than her own personal strength or even that of the community (Bracks 85). 

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: 7.12 (Side 2). Sofia being beaten to the ground by angry mob of White men.

After yelling at the mayor’s wife for being propositioned to be her maid, Sofia gets beaten by an angry mob and sent to prison for over a decade, as shown in Figure 4.

She is only paroled after Mary Agnes (or Squeak) allows herself to get raped by her own uncle, the warden. Sofia is then reduced into a maid and pseudo-companion, taking care of the mayor’s wife and her family, exactly what she tried to resist. She becomes a stuttering and muttering (120) ghost of a woman, no longer a mother to her beloved and now grown children: 

Sofia sit down at the big table like there’s no room for her. Children reach cross her like she not there. Harpo and Squeak act like a old married couple. Children call Odessa mama. Call Squeak little mama. Call Sofia “Miss.”  (The Color Purple 198-199).

For years, Sofia is a servant to the upper class; an African-American woman without a voice. This soon changes after Celie finds her voice at the dinner table, expressing her disgust for Albert and his lies. She implicates Harpo and his lack of support for Sofia by saying: 

Oh, hold on hell, I say. If you hadn’t tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would have caught her. Sofia so surprise to hear me speak up she ain’t chewed for ten minutes. 
That’s a lie, say Harpo. 
A little truth in it, says Sofia. 
Everybody look at her like they surprise she there. It like a voice speaking from the grave. (106) 

Sofia laughs in Harpo’s face to further emasculate him (107). Sofia, in a moment where the women have taken over and exposed their power, comes back from the dead and quickly regains the strength that she once had. Sofia, as a womanist, becomes a separatist in the name of her own health. 

The reason Celie is forced to verbally assault Albert is because of his hiding of Nettie’s letters. Nettie is not only important as a person of comfort for Celie, she is a fundamental figure in Walker’s womanist movement; she is working towards “the uplift of black people everywhere” (137) by continuing her missionary efforts in Africa. She is a mother to Celie’s estranged children, a Civil Rights activist, someone who appreciates the folk (African culture and history), likes the struggle and loves women. Nettie spends much of her time writing to Celie about Olinka tradition. For example, she writes in detail about her first Olinka funeral: 

The women paint their faces white and wear white shroud like garments and cry in a high keening voice. They wrapped the body in barkcloth and buried it under a big tree in the forest […] [Catherine] is still in mourning and sticking close to her hut, but she will not marry again (since she already has five boy children she can now do whatever she wants. She has become an honorary man) […] (165) 

Her thoughts on women are supposedly (and equally) respected and pitied for continuously struggling alone in an ever-changing world (“So I am an object of pity and contempt, I thought, to men and women alike”) (161). As Janet J. Montelaro so articulately expresses, Nettie’s 

letters expose the double affliction of racism and patriarchal oppression as affecting the lives of African-American women in the local context of the racially-segregated southern United States of the early 1900s. In comparison to Celie’s letters, Nettie’s letters extend an international scope to the pervasiveness of this dual oppression, which unfolds contemporaneously with Celie’s writing, but from within the perspective of Christianity’s evangelizing mission as it precedes the movement of Western imperialism on the African continent. Rather than intruding into Celie’s narrative, Nettie’s letters function structurally in the novel by contributing to Celie’s growing understanding of racist and patriarchal oppression (48). 

Nettie’s missionary and motherly status, as represented in Figure 5, Sofia’s inner strength and love for her children, Shug’s love of dance and music and Celie’s sexual and non-sexual love for women; all these women (as well as characters like Mary Agnes, Odessa, Catherine and Tashi) are, in one form or another, representative of the womanist movement.

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: 31.25 (Side 2). Nettie with her family in Africa, the homeland.

They are cultural icons created by a woman (and a womanist) who is also an authorial icon in her own right. Alice Walker’s political agenda, as a person “of color” and as a woman, is to empower “non-establishment or politically disempowered people” who “face an increasing challenge simply to stay alive on the planet” (The Same River Twice 45). In other words, Walker’s agenda is to politicize and to womanize, a deep contrast with what Spielberg attempted to do with his 1985 film.

The film, instead, focuses more so on the entirety of the African-American experience and the sexual ambiguity of Celie rather than the strength of Black womanism and those who are a part of the movement. Jacqueline Bobo, in her work “Reading Through the Text: The Black Woman as Audience,” would agree. According to Bobo, and with reference to characters described earlier, Sofia (played by Oprah Winfrey) is down-graded to a “henpecked” wife and “overbearing matriarchal figure” (274); Shug (played by Margaret Avery) is a treated as a woman who falls “victim of her insatiable sexual appetite” (274) and needs validation from her estranged preacher father (a character that does not exist in the original text) (275); and Celie, the center of both the book and the film (played by Whoopi Goldberg) is now an “unloved waif” rather than representative of the treatment of black women during the early 1900’s (275). Bobo even goes as far as to say that, although Spielberg did not intend to create a film that was similar to his other works, The Color Purple is structured as “a conventionalized melodrama of heightened emotionalism induced by music and heart-tugging moments” (280) while being juxtaposed with comic routines and “buffoonery” (281). An example of this comes about when Shug “visits” Albert (Danny Glover) and Celie’s household for the first time. Albert is quite enamored with Shug and bumbles around the kitchen trying to find ingredients to cook for her. He has a lot of difficulty in his attempts, especially with the stove. Albert eventually gets so frustrated he grabs a can of kerosene from the back room which leads Celie, who has been sitting in a rocking chair watching him with childish curiosity, to abruptly leave the rocking chair still rocking. There is an obvious explosion followed by a scene that shows Albert bringing burnt food up to Shug, food that Shug hates and throws at him from outside of the frame. Is comedy warranted during a time of great violence?    

In another scene, Shug is performing a sexually-explicit number at Harpo’s new jook joint, making Spielberg’s The Color Purple feel, for a moment, like a light-hearted musical (the film has, in fact, become a Broadway show and is being rebooted as a musical in December, 2023). Moments of levity and joy are necessary in films filled with intense violence and vicious neglect. Admittedly, in the extra-diegetic world, there are always genuine funny moments in times of great turmoil. That said, this film scene eventually degrades into a Western-style barroom brawl started by Sofia, who punches out Squeaky after Squeaky slaps her. Another musical number takes place nearer to the end of the film when Shug sings gospel music in the Baptist church down the road from Harpo’s. The church is headed by Shug’s father, who sees her as perpetuating the Devil’s work. Shug leads the heathens down the church aisle as if it is a grand revival, as seen in Figure 6, and gets the choir to sing along with her, which leads the reverend, her father, to break down in tears and take Shug back into the fold.

The Suppression of Child Abuse and Womanism in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Douglas C. Macleod Jr. (SUNY Cobleskill), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: 1.02.46 (Side 2). Shug leading the heathens down the church aisle.

They embrace, the father and daughter relationship coming together once again. Spielberg’s version of The Color Purple, produced like many other adapted texts, must present the material in such a way that the audience needs to feel comfortable with the images it is seeing and experiencing throughout. Spielberg’s The Color Purple depends on comedic genre conventions, depoliticizing Walker’s original text, allowing for audience appeasement to override the original womanist message. Thus, Spielberg’s The Color Purple ultimately deals with race, the patriarchy and homosexuality, however, does not align itself with its predecessor: a distinctly womanist text that dramatically deals with the tragedy that is child abuse against young Black girls.

Works Cited

Abend-David, Dror. “The Occupational Hazard: The Loss of Historical Context in Twentieth-Century Feminist Readings, and a New a Reading of The Heroine’s Story in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.”  Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 13-20.

Barker, E. Ellen. “Creating Generations: The Relationship Between Celie and Shug in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.”  Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp.55-66.

Bobo, Jacqueline. “Reading Through the Text: The Black Woman as Audience.” 

Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara, Routledge, 1993, pp. 272-287. Bracks, Lean’tin. Writings of Black Women of the Diaspora: History, Language, and Identity, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Buckland, Warren. “The Role of the Auteur in the Age of the Blockbuster: Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks.”  Movie Blockbusters, edited by Julian Stringer, Routledge, 2003, pp. 84-98.

Christophe, Marc--A. “The Color Purple: an Existential Novel.” Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 101-108.

Color Purple, The. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performances by Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, Warner Brothers, 1985.

Elsley, Judy. “‘Nothing can be sole of whole that has not been rent’: Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple.”  Critical Essays on Alice Walker, edited by Ikenna Dieke, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 163-170.

McDowell, Deborah E. “Black Feminist Thinking: The ‘Practice’ of ‘Theory’.”  African American Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Winston Napier, New York UP, 2000, pp. 557-579.

Montelaro, Janet. Producing a Womanist Text: The Maternal as Signifier in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, University of Victoria, 1996.

Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage Books, 1997.

--. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, Basic Civitas Books, 2002.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. 1982. Harcourt, Inc., 2000.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1983.

--. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film The Color Purple Ten Years Later, Scribner, 1996.