Saturday, May 27, 2023

Shades of Purple

Come gather 'round children, because your Busy Black Mother wants to tell you all a story about a book and ALL of the trouble it has caused ever since it was published back when she was in elementary school in the early 80s. It has been quite a while since she "read" it (almost 40 years), but from what she can recall, it tells a rather polarizing story about a woman who survives abuse. In fact, there are several women in the story who survive various forms of abuse. This book won several prestigious awards for its author, became a critically acclaimed cult classic film, and was adapted as a Broadway musical for the stage that will be re-released in a new film adaptation later this year.

The Color Purple ("TCP") is a story that deeply offends certain groups of people. Having been around all of these years to witness its various iterations and adaptations, I can speak both directly and indirectly to aspects of the controversy. The book has been banned for its sexual explicitness which some find to be too mature for impressionable readers. The book and film have been criticized for depicting negative images of men as abusive. The book, film, and play provide cultural references and timeless quotes, much like The Godfather, that are appropriate to offer in almost any situation. Your perspective in favor or in opposition to the story depends on how you self-identify: (1) as a Florida Mom who dislikes Oprah Winfrey's poetry; (2) some sanctimonious woman named Karen who only heard about the sex scenes in the book; (3) somebody's Black Grandfather or elder Uncle who saw the movie once in the 1980s; (4) some young man who may have seen the movie a couple of times on BET, but his impressions have been shaped by what his Grandfather or Uncle said about it at the barbershop; or (5) a Black woman.

Let's quickly dispatch with the first two categories because they are in fact, the same person. It doesn't really matter what her real name is if she hasn't read the book but still insists on having it banned. I doubt that she's even taken the time to skim an online summary, because if she had, she would have a better response to its sexual content other than to clutch her pearls. But then again, this same woman raises objections to most books that contain sexual references because she only had sex to procreate. Now that she has her 2.5 children, she can channel that energy into other hobbies such as riding her Peloton, micro-managing, and filing complaints against her neighbors with the home-owners association for petty infractions. 

The targeted audience for this piece is the latter three categories of Black people. I am making an assumption that members of other communities aren't having these kinds of deep philosophical discussions about TCP, but if I'm wrong, feel free to associate with the group that makes the most sense. For example, if you happen to be a woman named Karen who read the book, likes/loves the movie and/or the play, then you are welcome to sit with like-minded Black women. Ditto if you are a Black man who knows that half of what you grew up hearing in the barbershop is unlotioned foolishness, while the other half is just something that some dude heard and repeated because it made him sound smart. 

If you are still unsure, no worries because the goal here is enlightenment. However, if you already know which side you are on and it isn't with the Black women...

The Color Purple is a book about Black women written by a well-known Black woman writer named Alice Walker. The original movie is about Black women. The Broadway musical is about Black women. And I suspect that the new movie will also be about Black women. In none of these versions and iterations is The Color Purple about abusive Black men. Read that again because I said what I said: there are abusive Black men in TCP, but this story ain't about them!

TCP is a story about a Black woman in rural 1930s Georgia who is a victim of horrifying sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In fact, several of the women in the story are victims of abuse. For Celie, the main character, this abuse begins when she is a teenager and continues until she finds the courage to leave her abuser, many years later. The same is true for other women in the story. Therefore, I must emphasize that TCP is a story about how a group of Black women survive, overcome, and ultimately heal from the abuse that has been inflicted on them.

Let's back up some 40 years to when the book was published. As I stated above, I was in elementary school and I don't remember much about the accolades in real time, but I do recall that it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and presumably that is why it was made into a movie. A few years later when I was in middle school, we heard that there were some steamy sex scenes contained therein, so like all curious pubescent teenagers, we needed to know. My Mom happened to be reading the book, so while I had access to it, I could not borrow it from her to read with my friends on our Metro summer commute.  Thus, someone else's older sibling must have borrowed for us, and for about a week, we "read" the book to find these scandalous sex scenes. 

Alas, the Karens were partially right in arguing that this content was too mature for young impressionable minds because most of us had no idea of what was going on. The most scandalous passages I remember reading contained nudity while bathing, self-discovery with a hand-held mirror, and two women sharing a kiss. None of the other themes made much of an impression because we were mostly scanning the book, not really reading it. I definitely did not get a full grasp of the lesbian relationship. The conclusion we all reached was that we would have to wait and see the movie to get a better understanding.

Fast forward to the release of the movie in 1985 which I did not get to see in the theater because it was rated R and I was twelve. It must have been years later before it came on television (and my family didn't have cable when I was growing up), so I was probably in high school when I finally saw it for the first time. And I had forgotten all about the alleged scandalous sex scenes (which were omitted, so there's that). 

Other specifics are also long-forgotten, but I do remember that my parents had opposing opinions about the movie. And it wasn't just a disagreement between them, because there was once a heated discussion about this film at a family gathering (no worries, no brown liquor was wasted), where sides were taken. My Dad, my Uncles, and some older male cousins expressed their opinion that the film was terrible; whereas, my Mom, my Aunts, and my older cousin who was in college were adamant that the menfolks were wrong. For my part, I did not express an opinion at that time because I was still in that gray area where kids were not allowed to participate grown folks' conversations. But I could listen. 

And I could reflect on what I heard. My Mom bought a copy of the movie on VHS so I could watch it as much as I wanted to decide for myself. Eventually, the movie became a Sunday afternoon staple on BET, but we'll revisit that a little later.

Instead, let's skip ahead to when I was at Spelman in the early 90s. As most of you know, I was an English major so my undergraduate degree was essentially a concentration in Black women's literature. The literary and artistic era of that time overlapped with a lot of great work written by Black women that received both critical and mainstream recognition. Most notably, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature, while other authors such as Walker, Gloria Naylor, Terry McMillan, and Spelman alumna Tina McElroy Ansa were on best-seller lists and having their books made into movies. With our charismatic Sister President and the fact that Spelman was a magnet for practically every prominent Black woman at the time, it meant that on any given day, I could see some brilliant Black writer whose work I just read walking around on campus. This iconic picture captures the vibe that permeated the air at that time.

Not pictured here was the ever-inspiring and brilliant Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles, who was our resident Alice Walker scholar. She taught a mini-course on Walker that I had to sit in on once (don't remember why), where the students discussed her work and advocacy. It was a fascinating conversation that touched on a variety of topics, including Walker's reasons for leaving Spelman, her discovery of Zora Neale Hurston's grave, as well as the controversy that had accompanied TCP movie. Ironically, it was the first time that I witnessed a group of Black women offer criticism of TCP!

But don't get it twisted, these women were adamant that the shortcomings of the film were due to choices made by the filmmaker, the producers, and the actors, not the story as it was written. Certain characters were too cartoonish and some crucial elements of the book that were left out created unexplained gaps in the narrative. But at no point did any of these women argue that the male characters deserved to be judged with empathy, because at its heart, TCP was a story about the women.

The point of taking you on this side trip down memory lane was to set up what you must have assumed was the inevitable penultimate conflict that broke out in class between a group of my outspoken Spelman Sisters and some opinionated Morehouse Brothers. And you are half right, as there were several arguments that took place in Dr. Gayles' Images of Women in the Media class, except the argument I am recounting here was about another movie in another class.

Quite literally while I was thinking of some of the points I wanted to make in writing this piece on the new TCP, it was reported that rock icon Tina Turner had died. As the tributes to her (one forthcoming from me as well) poured in, one of the themes that kept getting repeated was how she was a survivor and feminist icon. And because those descriptions tend to trigger the denizens from Hotepistan armed with their pockets full of misogynoir pebbles, I knew it wouldn't take long before they would start throwing.

For it was during that same era when the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got To Do With It (1993) was released, the summer before my return to Spelman for my senior year. During discussion in a class, some dude mentioned his frustration with the "constant" portrayals of Black men as abusive and made reference to TCP as part of what he saw as a "disturbing trend" in that direction. Record scratch...some sister stood up and asked incredulously (I'm embellishing): Brother, how do two movies released in a span of eight years point to a disturbing trend??? Are you serious? He countered that it wasn't just these two movies, but several works written by and about Black women that depicted Black men as evil, and then he offered this most incendiary shot across the bow: And half the women on this campus cheer that mess on because y'all hate Black men!

Now let me tell you, I don't know what happened to that dude, whether he made it back over to Morehouse with a full head of hair, or if he ever came back to class. Our inter-campus gender wars had been ongoing for years, so this wasn't anything that hadn't been heard or said before. Although I am pretty sure that this wasn't in Dr. Gayles' class, enough of us had been admonished by her in other courses to Claim Our Space, so the brother had no chance. He got ALL the smoke, with that original sister leading the charge. Since I cannot offer a play-by-play, I can tell you that the grand point that the sisters made that the brother ignored was this: These👏 Movies👏 Ain't👏 About👏 You👏 Boo👏

Like seriously, who goes to see a movie about Tina Turner's life with the expectation that Ike Turner ought to be depicted as a sympathetic yet misunderstood genius with no impulse control? Who reads a book written about an abused Black woman and expects that the story would urge readers to feel sorry for her abuser? Huh? In the canon of movies and books that had been written and championed by Black men, had there even been a fully-formed Black female character, someone who wasn't a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out simply placed in a scene to improve the optics? (Yep, here's looking at you Brother Spike.)

Furthermore, if Black women are telling stories about being abused, why is all this ire being aimed at the women for speaking up? Dead women can't speak for themselves, so the stories of survivors are what get told. Instead of being upset about the depictions of their abusers, perhaps get mad that there were/are men who subject women to that kind of treatment! We get it, not all men (just like not all white people, not all women named Karen, not all Christians, not all of any group, etc.), so if the accusation or depiction isn't reflective of who YOU are, then there is no need to be triggered or take it personally.

Literally, this is the same argument we've been having since before Al Gore invented the internet. Whether it takes place in analog or in these digital tweets, some of y'all refuse to accept that not all stories are going to tell your preferred narrative. Sometimes there are villains even among the disenfranchised, so your frustration that Mister and every other man in TCP were practically unredeemable isn't some statement against all Black men. Because this is Celie's story of surviving the abuse SHE endured, from her perspective, NO, there wasn't a single redeemable man who intervened to defend her, to rescue her, to protect her, or to avenge her.

And that ain't only true in fictional rural 1930s Georgia...

Some of y'all never have anything positive to say about Black women. Now that we are having these arguments in digital spaces, I don't need to rely on my memory--I can pull up CVS length receipts as proof. For example, I need only mention one of the following names: Kamala Harris, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Meghan Markle, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Stacey Abrams, Serena Williams, and I bet $100 that some ashy dude has been all over Blue Ivy's internet talking trash. Tina Turner hasn't been dead for more than 72 hours and some of y'all couldn't wait to blast her over having had a white husband. Not all Black men, but some of you hate any and every Black woman that you can't control. And just like some white people and some women named Karen and some Christians, if you can't control a Black woman, you will say and do whatever it takes to shape how others perceive her.

Ironically, that point is exactly what you missed if all you ever saw in TCP was red whenever Mister, Harpo, Old Mister, Shug's Daddy the Preacher, or Celie's stepfather were on screen. As long as Mister controlled everything in Celie's life, she only saw herself as he treated her. Harpo tried to beat his wife into submission. Old Mister didn't chastise his son for mistreating his wife. Shug's Daddy was more concerned about his reputation. And Celie's stepfather was a child-raping monster. You should be mad and ashamed at them and whenever men like them escape accountability.

Finally, back to BET and the fact that most of us have seen this movie more than enough times to appreciate and acknowledge its cultural relevance. It had been a staple of BET Sunday afternoon programming (until Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins replaced it). In fact, TCP has to be in the Top Five of the most quoted/memed Black movies of all time. I know this is a generalization but is there a Black person alive (older than 16) who doesn't recognize the context of Sophia or Shug Avery declaring "I'se married, I'se married now!"; or someone being pulled aside and asked, "Harpo, who dis?"; or this stern reply in a perfect Miss Millie intonation, "I don't know him"? You mean to tell me that you grew up on this movie, can quote lines from this movie, but still missed the point?

On this land??? (And if you caught that reference, then I KNOW your Grandmothers and Aunties would be ashamed if you are choosing the wrong side of this debate.) 

Now, if you read this far, there's not much more that I have to say...except (begrudgingly) you can dislike TCP for any number of reasons including, but not limited to its depiction of Black men. It is a good film, not perfect. Some of the critiques that have been offered are valid, particularly that director Steven Spielberg made certain creative choices that are problematic. And if you have paid any attention to Alice Walker over the years, she has become, shall we say Jim Brown-complicated--simultaneously wonderful for her past accomplishments and hideous the more we learn about her life and beliefs. I find her antisemitism and transphobia to be especially troubling. (Perhaps I could be accused of similarly attempting to bury the lede on Walker, but trust, I have and will revisit that can of worms another time.) As for the adaptation of the stage play for the silver screen, I must reserve judgment since I haven't seen the play (my parents did see it, and I am happy to report that it didn't provoke the same polarizing reaction). But still, just give it a chance as you should any other film. 

PS: Don't hate on Colman Domingo for being too believable as Mister if you haven't seen him in Zola (2021) (which I did and umm, yeah #IJS as a society, we need to be far more outraged by the way women are subjected to various kinds of abuse and exploitation)...

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