Monday, September 17, 2012

It's About Us

It's been a few months, about time for me to harp on women's issues again.

Have you seen The Color Purple? Don't worry, neither had I but you should, you totally should. Don't get me wrong, this movie is a challenge to watch and is emotionally taxing but you'll be a better person for having seen it.

This 1985 movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, was the debut film for Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, though it didn't win any of them (a total shame). This movie is about the struggle of black women (am I allowed to say 'black'?); it's their story but it's also our story because their hardships were caused by black men, white men, and white women and frankly, the fight isn't over.

The movie follows the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) from the early 1900s to the 1930s. Celie and her sister Nettie are abused (physically, verbally, and sexually) by their father; Celie has two children by him whom have been given away. At the age of fourteen(ish), Celie is given in marriage to Mister (who actually wanted Nettie, the prettier of the two).  In her new home, Celie is abused by her husband and his three children from a previous marriage. Nettie, running away from the abuse of her father, comes to stay with them and teaches Celie to read. When Mister's attentions to Nettie become too forward and she refuses him (with a swift kick right where it counts), Mister kicks Nettie out and tells the sister's they'll never see one another again. We, the audience, or at least I, understood that Nettie wrote to Celie but that Mister, prohibiting Celie from ever going near the mailbox, kept them from Celie.

Years of misery and abuse pass. Celie grows up, the children grow up, and the oldest, Harpo, takes a bride, Sophia. Sophia, played by Winfrey, is a big, loud girl who is afraid of no one. Mister suggests that Harpo beat her to take her down a notch. Harpo tries that and gets a good licking for his trouble. Sophia is the first of two strong, female influences in Celie's life. The second is Shug, a speakeasy singer known for her loose ways and a frequent bedfellow of Mister. Shug and Celie form an interesting relationship. Celie takes care of Shug once when she's sick and staying at the house with them. Shug takes a liking to Celie and slowly comes to discover that, in a way, she is Celie's only protection. Mister is happy when Shug is there and ignores Celie but when Shug is gone he beats Celie. Celie says he does this because she's not Shug. Through Shug's friendship and love, Celie begins to gain self-confidence and to understand that she is worthy of love. Apparently, in the book, they have a homosexual relationship. This is touched on briefly in the film but is left vague. Spielberg has commented that he regrets not having made it more apparent. I can understand though that in the 1980's, when you are already dealing with some pretty heavy racism and sexism topics, you might leave that out.

A lot more happens in this story, most of it terribly tragic, but I don't want to spoil any of it. It is powerful and heartrending. Amazingly, Alice Walker, the authoress, was apparently concerned by how much the movie focused on the sunny side of the novel and, though she liked the film, considered it very different from her book. If the movie was the sunny side, I tremble to read the novel.

Another concern was having Spielberg as the director. Many thought that a white man had no place directing a film about women of color. While I understand the sentiment I almost think it was monumental that Spielberg was the director. First off, to find a black, female director in Hollywood in the 1980's (let alone today) would be a huge undertaking. Furthermore, to have a film directed by a black, female director in the 1980's ever be heard of would be nigh unto impossible. I think having someone of Spielberg's already established stature (E.T. being his biggest film up to that time) was a necessity for The Color Purple to ever become anything of note. And, while it is depressing that it took a white man to make a movie about black women famous, I think it is more important that the movie was made and seen. In the end, everyone was pleased with Spielberg's handling of the film but, of its 11 nominations, Best Director was not one of them.

If the partial description above is not indication enough, I will warn you now that rape, incest, domestic abuse, racism, sexism, and foul language play a heavy part in this film. Because it was the 1980s and PG-13 most of the more graphic elements are implied or suggested but not shown. That doesn't mean you won't see Whoopi Goldberg get hit in the face with a brick by Danny Glover. P.S. By the end of the film, you are going to hate Danny Glover. And white people. But do not let this warning keep you from watching it. It's important. Like La Vita E Bella or To Kill A Mockingbird (it's on my list, okay?), you have to see it even if it's not the happiest thing you've ever experienced. And I definitely watched parts of it on mute. It's easier that way; without the sound you're a little more distant from the action. I can remember it's a movie without audio. This is also my trick for making it through scary, suspenseful movies

Movie two of the weekend was a Bollywood film, Vivah, on Hulu. This was mostly a romantic movie with a little comedy and a little drama. Toward the end it leaned heavily on the drama and got a little ridiculous. Bride-to-be is caught in a burning house on the eve of her wedding and sacrifices herself to save her cousin, causing severe burns to her body (thank God not her face). A very serious doctor explains to that family that in "such cases" most families would disown the burn victim and to not expect the fiance to stick around. But the Groom is a stand up guy and surprises everyone by insisting they will be married and today so that he may, as her husband, rightfully sign the papers for her surgery. The very serious doctor expresses his surprise and delight in the Groom's loyalty, commenting that often the hospital sees brides burned not married. This is where the needle scratch happened in my head. A quick jaunt over to Wikipedia revealed this article regarding bride burning as a means of freeing grooms from their bride of little dowry. And it still happens in recent history. For heaven's sake, it wasn't made a crime in India until 1986. Though, don't get me wrong, this is not an indictment of India because abuse of women is prevalent everywhere, even in our good ol' U.S.of.A.

So, women's issues, race issues. They're important. Talk amongst yourselves. Stay tuned for women's health issues.

P.S. Leslie Gore's You Don't Own Me is a surprisingly forward women's lib song for the time.


  1. Have not seen The Color Purple, so pardon me while I head to the same corner.

    Most families WOULD DISOWN HER. Great. She sacrifices herself to save someone and gets disowned for her trouble. *rages*

    1. For serious. At least in this film the family welcomes her home for saving their daughter and her aunt, who has always been envious that she was prettier than her cousin, finally accepts her as a daughter. But the expectation that you are ugly now and therefore worthless is pretty harsh. Also, only ugly on your body, which in Indian culture is almost entirely covered by clothes. Also, also, probably just daughters because sons don't cost dowry money.