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The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985). Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University aeward@niu.edu. Introduction. In the following lecture we will discuss Hollywood’s transition from plantation films to blacksploitation to modern fragmentation of the African-American experience.

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The Color Purple (1985)

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  1. The Color Purple (1985) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University aeward@niu.edu

  2. Introduction • In the following lecture we will discuss Hollywood’s transition from plantation films to blacksploitation to modern fragmentation of the African-American experience. • Why did this film get made and why did it depart from the novel? • What do the film’s variations on the novel tell us about the priorities of Hollywood? • Are “modern” films about the African-American experience more damaging than previous genres? • Can films be both uplifting and damaging?

  3. The End of the Plantation Genre • Plantation genre films finally came to end in the mid-to-late 20th century. Why? • The emergence of Black political consciousness -- rising initially out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, refining its expression in the Black rebellion of the 60s, and contributing to the United States' ever-growing perception of itself as a culturally plural, multi-ethnic society. • As a result, it would be almost impossible, today, to capitalize and bring to the screen a culturally hegemonic, "Old South" epic on the scale of Gone with the Wind (1939), or a film with the reactionary, plantation sentiment of Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946).

  4. Blacksploitation Films • Beginning in 1970, Hollywood began a profit-making strategy of producing films to appeal to urban, black audiences. • So-called “Blacksploitation” films typically take place in ghettos and feature plotlines which entail crime, hit men, drug dealers, and pimps. Ethnic slurs against whites (e.g., "honky“ and “cracker”), and antagonistic white characters such as corrupt cops, politicians, prostitutes, and gullible gangsters are common plot and or character elements.  • While some held that the genre was exemplary of black empowerment, the movies were accused by others of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. What do you think? • As a result, many called for the end of the genre. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Urban League joined together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. • Supported by many black film professionals, this group received much media exposure and during the late 1970s, contributed to the demise of these films. • However, stylistic and other elements of the genre have been incorporated into newer films such as Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Superbad (2007), and most of the films of Quentin Tarantino.

  5. Fragmenting and Individualizing the African-American Experience • In place of the plantation and Blacksploitation films, Hollywood shifted to films with "crossover" themes aimed at broader, multiracial audiences. • These popular, commercial productions attempt to articulate Black story lines acted by Black casts for consumption by a general mass media audience. • Yet these films were made about Black people and not necessarily by them. African-Americans have had little institutional control over "the mode of production" of their screen images. • Hence, African-American portrayals beginning in the 1980s reflect popular cinema's culturally dominant ideology, which at minimum tends to fragment and individualize the African-American impulse for justice, and social equality, and usually, explicitly or implicitly, favors a privileged, white, male, perspective on the screen.

  6. Alice Walker’s Novel • The daughter of a Georgia sharecropper and maid, Alice Walker began writing at a young age. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. • Active in the civil rights movement, she wrote novels, short stories, and poetry and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 1982 book The Color Purple. • She sold the film rights to the book in hopes that her work would reach a wider audience. • The film’s Executive Producers were Jon Peters (A Star is Born, The Main Event, Caddyshack) and Peter Guber (Flashdance, D.C. Cab, Vision Quest, Clue). It was directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T.) and the screenplay written by Dutch screenwriter Menno Meyjes—his first. • The film departs from the novel in a number of significant ways, each reflecting Hollywood ideology about African-Americans.

  7. Hollywoodization of the South • “Modern” portrayals of the African-American experience in the south are arguably more damaging than plantation films. How so? • Like many portrayals of African-Americans in the south, the Black community is shown in idyllic rural settings removed from the containment and oppression of the surrounding white community. • Further, these films construct African-Americans as simple, country beings without the slightest inkling of a political consciousness or recognition of their painful historical situation. • The Color Purple does make some concessions on these latter points in that it tries, no matter how superficially, to acknowledge the social reality of racism in the confrontation between Sophia and the white Mayor and his wife.

  8. Dominant Gaze • Margaret Russell has argued that even when “mainstream” movies show black characters on the screen, they generally use “the dominant gaze,” one of multiple ways to “perpetuate the subordination” African Americans. • The dominant gaze is the tendency of mainstream culture to replicate, through narrative and imagery, racial inequalities and biases which exist throughout society. • American popular cinema objectifies and trivializes the racial identity and experiences of people of color, even when it purports to represent them. • The dominant gaze subtly invites the viewer to empathize and identify with its viewpoint as natural, universal, and beyond challenge; it marginalizes other perspectives to bolster its own legitimacy in defining narratives and images. • Furthermore, films engage in the “co-optation—or Hollywood-ization—of ostensibly ‘racial’ themes to capitalize on the perceived trendiness or fashionableness of such perspectives • Hence the mere depiction of black characters hitherto not depicted, does not per se indicate a change in the “the dominant gaze.”

  9. Shifting Responsibility for Slavery • The film subtly shifts the historical onus for the crime of slavery from the white planter class onto the Black male. • This shift is at once Hollywood’s attempt to recover some of the ideological terrain lost in commercial cinema with the disappearance of the plantation genre after the rise in Black political and media consciousness precipitated by the Civil Rights Movement. • But it’s also, a classic Hollywood strategy of inverting historical relations between the dominant, oppressor class and minority, oppressed groups. • For example, consider that one of the most common paradigms in Western films is that of peace-loving settlers surrounded on their land by intruding, bloodthirsty Indians, when in historical fact the situation was exactly the other way around. • Why do modern Hollywood films shift blame away from whites?

  10. Mister as Plantation Master • A number of images portray Mister as plantation Master. • His land is a farm, his house a white, columned facade of an "Old South" mansion. In short: a plantation. • Mister is an African-American parody of a white planter managing his field hands. He wears a planter's straw hat and sits on a horse in the field overseeing the work. • The visual contradiction surfaces when one considers that the universal beast of burden of blacks in the agrarian South and the animal that African-Americans have celebrated and identified with in their literature, poetry and music is the mule. • Celie's assumed father (another inferred slavemaster) rapes her and then separates her from and sells the resulting child, as happened many times under the domination of the white planter class in historical slavery. When Mister comes on his horse to Celie's father's door looking for a new wife, he and the father bargain for a moment and then Celie is called out to display herself, like chattel on the auction block. • Moreover, in true plantation tradition, Mister sexually abuses, overworks and beats the Black women that live on his land. • He keeps Shug, his concubine in the same house as his wife and discourages his chattel from reading and writing. • All of these things happened to African-Americans, as a people, under slavery. These were things done to African-Americans by the planter aristocracy and their agents. • But in The Color Purple, the meaning of slavery is twisted and inverted. The planter class composed of white men and women is replaced by Black men. The burden of the slave master is displaced onto Mister and the implications of the film's subtext are that blacks, and black men in particular, are somehow responsible for slavery—and in the modern 1980s context—their own modern-day problems.

  11. The Black Man as Brute • The most obvious criticism of the film is that it constructs a gender-divided reading of the oppression of African-Americans, with, even on its narrative surface, Black men as the predominant oppressors of Black women. • Black men are depicted as brutes, as mean, without any reference to the historical and social conditions that may have made some of them that way. • The film privileges sexism over racism, scapegoats Black men, and, unconsciously or not, fragments the African-American impulse for political, economic and human rights. • Why is it that the only big budget, studio production of the year that mediates a Black theme and foregrounds Black women contains so many crude distortions and reifications of African-American culture and devalues Black men?

  12. The Black Man as Buffoon • Perhaps the most maligned figure in the film is Harpo. • In the book he couldn't become the patriarch that society demanded that he become. • Yet because the film cannot depict a man uncomfortable with the requirements of patriarchy, Harpo is made into a buffoon. • Hence the movie is critical of men who show some measure of sensitivity to women. • In addition the film used the characterizations of Harpo and Sofia as comic relief. • Many Black viewers were upset with Harpo's ineptness in not being able to repair a roof. Supposedly that became even funnier if he fell three times.

  13. Sofia as Comic Relief • In her review of the film for Village Voice , Michele Wallace was critical of the film’s depiction of Sofia. • "In the book Sofia is the epitome of a woman with masculine powers, the martyr to sexual injustice who eventually triumphs through the realignment of the community. • In the movie she is an occasion for humor. She and Harpo are the reincarnation of Amos and Sapphire; they alternately fight and fuck their way to a house full of pickaninnies. • Harpo is always falling through the roof he's chronically unable to repair. • Sofia is always shoving a baby into his arms, swinging her large hips, and talking a mile a minute. • Harpo, who is dying to marry Sofia in the book, seems bamboozled into marriage in the film. • Sofia's only masculine power is her contentiousness. Encircled by the mayor, his wife and an angry white mob, she is knocked down and her dress flies up providing us with a timely reminder that she is just a woman.”

  14. Primitive/Savage Behavior • In once scene Celie, is, justifiably, tempted to cut Mister's throat while shaving him. As she pauses with razor in hand, the scene cross-cuts back and forth between her, razor poised, and the ritual scarification of children taking place in Africa. Why? • By juxtaposing an initiation ceremony with Celie's murderous impulse, serious African religious/cultural practices are depicted as "savage" or "primitive" and African standards of beauty are ridiculed. • This connects up later in the film with the overall red tone to the juke joint sequences and the red dress that Shug wears while she is performing there. • As Barbara Christian put it, the gross inaccuracy of the African initiation ceremony coupled with the shots of Celie going after Mister with the sharpened knife seemed intended to depict a "primordial blood urge shared by dark peoples in Africa and Afro-Americans." • This scene is purely a cinematic invention that occurs nowhere in the novel and expresses commercial cinema's dominant cultural values.

  15. Lesbianism • Lesbianism, except for one timid scene, is repressed in the film, where it is significant in the narrative and to the meaning of the novel. Why? • At the time, commercial cinema was not ready to depict gay and lesbian characters with any degree of acceptance or normality. • Hence, the non-serious treatment overrides the possibility of the audience understanding the scene's sexual importance. • Shug and Celie sit on a bed, they touch, and kiss briefly. It’s as if they are sisters. • The film is rated PG-13.

  16. Musical Interludes • Historically, African-American studio spectacles have entertaining, folksy, musical interludes built into their narratives. Why? • Because the African-American as entertainer has long been accepted and even expected by white audiences.  • In The Color Purple, black music is falsely polarized as "good" & "bad.“ • Gospel or church music is inscribed as good, while the more powerful and universal Black idioms, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hip Hop are evil. • In The Color Purple this same tired juke joint/church polarity is repeated, only this time with patriarchal affirmations which are particularly puzzling, since Walker's novel, above all, articulates and celebrates Black women's values. • The final reconciliation between Shug and her preacher father, also between Blues and gospel audiences, occurs on unequal ground, in the church in front of the altar, with everyone singing spirituals and Shug throwing herself uncritically back into the arms of her father, the prime signifier of the institutional Christian patriarchy. • Here, the ideological meaning and intent of Walker's book on the point of white, hegemonic, patriarchal religion is reversed. In the novel, Shug breaks with her father and the church because God, as interpreted by the church, is a "he" and a white man's God. Suffice it to say that this scene is unique to the film as Hollywood blatantly recoups the very values that Walker, through Shug, rejects. • Furthermore, the film further undermines the project of reconciliation between both good and bad black music by the overall soundtrack: a generic, clichéd Eurocentric movie music functioning on a connotative level, jerking tears from the consumers, cueing them as to where to laugh, whom to hate or sympathize with…

  17. Alternate Ending: Fragmentation • The film's closure contradicts the ending in Walker's novel. • In the novel's conclusion, Mister sits on the porch, smokes, talks and helps Celie sew pants for her business. He is caring and humanized to a certain extent, and the scene suggests the possibility of reconciliation and healing within the Black family and community. • Conversely, the film constructs a dissonant ending. It fragments Black unity by closing with Celie, Nettie, the children and the women of the family gathered in front of the house with a contrite and reflective Mister alone, out in the field. • Again, the manipulations of the dominant cinema apparatus override the possibility of reconciliation and unity suggested in the closure of Walker's novel.

  18. Black = Impoverished and Deprived • One criticism of films that depict African-American is the white world’s tendency—the dominant gaze—to equate blackness almost exclusively with poverty and deprivation. • The Color Purple portrays black people as perverse, sexually wanton, and irresponsible. • Was this grievance alleviated by late-20th-century sitcoms like “The Cosby Show” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”? • No. Because they were comedies they could be easily dismissed as imaginary.

  19. Exploitation • Bell Hooks (1990) argues that “more than ever before, white film-makers are working to include images and stories of black people in their work. • In this one sense, The Color Purple was groundbreaking and especially threatening and dangerous. • Yet it also stands as an expression of the liberal white film-maker’s willingness to exploit the culture of blackness as he or she might exploit any subject matter. • This act was culturally hegemonic and signified how little radical politics regarding race have really altered the way we as black people are seen by white people and the way our labor is appropriated. • It also blurs our ability to clearly know and define the oppressor.”

  20. Reception • The film was a massive box office hit earning nearly $100 million in the U.S. • And while most critics liked the film, some were vehemently negative. • Tony Brown, a syndicated columnist and the host of the television program Tony Brown's Journal called the film "the most racist depiction of Black men since The Birth of a Nation and the most anti-Black family film of the modem film era." • Ishmael Reed, a Black novelist, labeled the film and the book "a Nazi conspiracy.“ • Donald Bogle, a film historian and author said on the Phil Donohue show: • "For Black viewers there is a schizophrenic reaction. You're torn in two. On the one hand you see the character of Mister and you're disturbed by the stereotype. Yet, on the other hand, and this is the basis of the appeal of that film for so many people, is that the women you see in the movie, you have never seen Black women like this put on the screen before. I'm not talking about what happens to them in the film, I'm talking about the visual statement itself. When you see Whoopi Goldberg in close-up, a loving close-up, you look at this woman, you know that in American films in the past, in the 1930s, 1940s, she would have played a maid. She would have been a comic maid. Suddenly, the camera is focusing on her and we say I've seen this woman some place, I know her."

  21. Aftermath • The film was nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. The film director was not nominated. • It won none, though many—including Roger Ebert—felt it should have won Best Picture and Whoopi Goldberg best caress. • Instead, Out of Africa—starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford—won for Best Picture and Best Director (Sydney Pollack). Best Actor: William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Best Actress: Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful). Best Supporting Actor: Don Ameche (Cocoon). Best Supporting Actress: Anjelica Huston (Prizzi’s Honor). • Goldberg did with a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama. She eventually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Ghost (1990). She is one of the few artists to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony. • In 2005 a Broadway musical of The Color Purple opened. One of the producers was Oprah Winfrey. It ran through early 2008.

  22. Conclusion • The Color Purple is at once both empowering—particularly for African-American female viewers—and damaging—particularly to African-American men. • The very act of viewing multi-dimensional African-American lead characters in film is at once both progressive and also exploitive in that their stories are co-opted and reinterpreted by mainstream Hollywood for mass consumption. • In the end, a film made in the mid 1980s shifts the blame for slavery and the state of the African-American community in the 1930s from whites to black men. Why?

  23. Credits • Bobo, Jacqueline, “Black Women’s Responses to The Color Purple,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 33 (Feb. 1988): 43-51. • Guerrero, Ed, “The Slavery Motif in Recent Popular Cinema,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 33 (Feb. 1988): 52-59. • Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: the African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993). • hooks, bell, “Stylish Nihilism: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies,” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, bell hooks, ed.(1990). • Russell, Margaret M., “Race and the Dominant Gaze: Narratives of Law and Inequality in Popular Films,” 15 Legal Stud. F 244 (1991). • Staples, Brent. 2012. “Black Characters in Search of Reality.” New York Times, February 11.

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