'The Color Purple': How The Black Community Transformed Catastrophe Into Comedy
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Film , Opinion

'The Color Purple': How The Black Community Transformed Catastrophe Into Comedy

Each Thursday this summer, each week Shadow and Act is revisiting some of the most popular and beloved movies of our time in a special throwback series!

Check out this week's selection below in tribute to the classic film, The Color Purple:


Living while black can be a curious conundrum, a phenomenon that has been dissected at such a compulsive (and ridiculous) scale, that we often can’t help but pull out the same magnifying glass and point it at ourselves. Our community has endured -- and is still enduring -- quite the trauma throughout history. One coping method has stood out above the rest in the most captivating way: laughter. Check any trending hashtag concerning racism, and you’ll find Black Twitter remodeling the entire ordeal into your favorite sketch comedy show.

Based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name written by the incomparable Alice Walker, The Color Purple debuted in 1985 starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Desreta Jackson, Akosua Busia, Margaret Avery, Willard E. Pugh, Adolph Caesar and Rae Dawn Chong. Goldberg and Winfrey were both tackling their film debuts, unknowingly ensconced in what would be considered one of their most iconic roles in years to come.

The Color Purple isn’t a drama, it’s a comedy!” exclaimed one of my close friends during one of our requisitely random quotable moments or perhaps during our 50-leventh viewing -- either one could be equally accurate. This thought persisted as I went over every frame in my head while subsequently grasping at every fond memory I have with a film that has embedded itself into my community -- both personally and on a larger scale, the black community, as a whole.

Famously directed by Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple enraptured us with every breeze coursing through the country field and young Celie’s (Jackson) wonderfully nappy hair as she watched her best friend, Nettie (Busia), through wide eyes. Thrust into a cycle of abuse starting from her father who impregnated her twice, Celie’s marriage to Albert / Mister (Glover) is akin to a currency exchange. Not until the introduction of Shug Avery (Avery) does Celie liaise with the idea that she is, indeed, a person who belongs to no other than herself. Her grand moment of personal freedom erupts at the prominent dinner table scene as Celie snatches her self-worth with the sheer strength of her fingers clamped around that turkey-cutting knife.

The Color Purple is rife with tragedy -- loss, grief, abuse, racism, misogyny and rape culture -- while addressing heavy themes such as sexuality and reclaiming identity, and yet it also deftly manages to insert an extraordinary amount of amusement. Sofia’s (Winfrey) compelling “all my life I had to fight” monologue has been remixed into pop culture fodder, with its actual words infused as a cry for help, a manifesto filled with maternal mistreatment. Or Old Mister’s (Caesar) erratic quips filled with misogynoir: “She black as tar, nappy-headed, got legs like baseball bats, and I hear she got that nasty women's disease.”

In one of the film's most heartbreaking sequences, Sofia’s robust defiance (“I said, hell naw”) is a still-relevant peek into police brutality, and her downward spiral from a highly respected and desired woman diminished into Miss Millie’s meek servant, equipped with a wayward eye. Sofia’s fall from grace is doleful but true to the film’s form each cataclysm couples with humor. Miss Millie, while racist in the most annoying way -- appearing harmless --, is a buffoon in her own right. In a performance of slapstick proportions, Miss Millie grants Sofia a rare opportunity to spend time with the family she barely recognizes anymore and attempts to drive herself home. The whole thing results in a display of racial profiling as she accuses the black men of Sofia’s family of attacking her. Still, a quotable moment arises when she refuses to ride with a “strange colored man,” and Sofia offers her sister, Odessa, to drive her, but Miss Millie frowns, “I don’t know her either.” Like many lines in the film, it’s all in the delivery.

Even the morbid topic of death is played up for cackles:

“How’d he die?”

“On top of me.”

Or Celie’s swan song: “I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here. I'm here.” A beautiful moment of triumph and comedic rehashing all at once. And black folks are somehow able to reconcile with both perfectly.

You can’t attend any black gathering without some mention of The Color Purple, and its quotes are almost like a black-enough contest of Makidada. Everyone knows the typical phrases like “You sho is ugly!” or “You told Harpo (Pugh) to beat me?!” But can you spot a more obscure quote from Laurence Fishburne’s sparse scenes? Can you recite the entire dinner scene on cue? Can you leave a function before closing the piano? Are you married unless you declare, "I's married now!"? God is pissed when you walk by the color purple unnoticed, but black folks are even more pissed when you don’t come correct with The Color Purple trivia.

Turning tragedy into tickles may be peculiar to those who don’t understand, but it may be best to remain befuddled in silence. Black joy is a continuum, and we won't allow anyone to police it. Turning lemons into lemonade, indeed; no Shug Avery pee.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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