The Color Purple is a 1985 American coming-of-age period drama film directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Menno Meyjes, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker. It was Spielberg’s eighth film as a director, and was a change from the summer blockbusters for which he had become famous. The film was also the first feature-length film directed by Spielberg for which John Williams did not compose the music. The film stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey (in her film debut), Rae Dawn Chong, Willard Pugh, and Adolph Caesar in one of his final film roles.
Filmed in Anson and Union counties in North Carolina, the film tells the story of a young African American girl named Celie Harris and shows the problems African American women faced during the early 20th century, including domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, poverty, racism, and sexism. Celie is transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of two strong female companions.
The film was a box office success, raising $142 million from a budget of $15 million. The film received positive reviews from critics, receiving praise for its acting, direction, screenplay, score, and production merits; but it was also criticized by some critics for being “over-sentimental” and “stereotypical.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, without winning any; it also received four Golden Globe Award nominations, with Whoopi Goldberg winning Best Actress in a Drama. Steven Spielberg didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination for his directing, but did receive a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and a Golden Globe nomination. The film was later included in Roger Ebert‘s book series The Great Movies.
Celie Harris is an African-American teenager in early 20th century rural Georgia who had had two children by her abusive stepfather, both of whom have been taken from her. She is given away as a wife to widower Albert Johnson, who already has three children, and is soon abused. Celie’s sister Nettie, whom she has vowed to protect, escapes their abusive stepfather and seeks shelter at the Johnson estate. Albert immediately takes a romantic interest in Nettie and lets her stay, where she and Celie promise to write each other should they ever be separated. Nettie teaches Celie to read and the two are happy together, until Albert sexually assaults Nettie while on her way to school. She successfully fights him off, and is forcibly removed from the property.
Years later, Celie is now a meek adult who has avoided standing up to Johnson’s continued abuse. His eldest son Harpo marries his girlfriend Sofia, a strong-willed, boisterous character, and Celie is shocked to find her running a matriarchal household. On Albert’s advice, Harpo attempts to overpower and strike Sofia in an attempt to better control her. After he fails, he asks Celie what to do. Confronted with her own inability to stand up to abuse, she also advises Harpo to start beating Sofia. Sofia forcefully retaliates, and confronts Celie about what she told Harpo, threatening to kill him if he beats her again and telling Celie to do likewise to Albert. Sofia eventually leaves Harpo, taking her children with her.
Johnson and Harpo bring home Shug Avery, a showgirl and the former’s long-time mistress, as she suffers from an unknown illness. Celie, who has slowly developed a fondness for Shug through a photograph sent to Johnson, does not object to Shug’s presence, and is in awe of Shug’s strong-will and ability to stand up to Albert. She goes above and beyond in nursing Shug back to health, and Shug in turn takes a liking to her, writing and performing a song about her at Harpo’s newly-opened bar. Obsessed with Shug, Celie follows her around and learns she is in ill standing with the reverend, who is angry about Shug’s wild lifestyle. Celie decides to follow Shug to Memphis, but gets caught by Albert while she’s frantically packing her things.
Sofia is imprisoned and separated from her children after being instigated into a violent confrontation that results in a riot. Years pass, and she is released from prison only to be immediately ordered by the judge to become a maid to the Mayor’s wife, Ms. Millie. Having not seen her children in eight years, Sofia is allotted Christmas to be with her family, and Ms. Millie tries to drive her, but panics and turns around after encountering a group of Sofia’s friends who are only trying to help her.
Shug returns to the Johnson household with her new husband Grady, expecting to receive a recording contract. Shug gives Celie a letter from Nettie, who tells her that she’s working for a couple that has adopted Celie’s children. Celie and Shug realize that Johnson has been hiding Nettie’s letters from Celie; while he and Grady are out drinking, the two search the house and find a hidden compartment under the floorboards filled with dozens and dozens of letters. Engrossed in reading Nettie’s letters, Celie does not hear Albert’s calls to shave him and he beats her. Celie considers killing Albert with the straight-razor, but Shug intervenes and stops her. At a family gathering including the Johnsons, the Averys, and Sofia’s family, Celie finally speaks up against Albert, to Shug and Sofia’s delight, who breaks her silence and finds her old fighting spirit, which prompts Harpo’s new wife to stand up for herself as well. Johnson continues to berate Celie, who then threatens and curses him. Shug and Grady drive away, taking Celie with them.
Years later, Celie owns and operates a tailor shop, Johnson is old and alone, and Harpo has made amends with Sofia; the two now running the bar together. Celie’s stepfather passes away, and she finally learns from Nettie’s letters that he wasn’t their biological father, and that when their mother passed, the Harris property was legally inherited by Celie and Nettie. After not having performed since her illness, Shug starts singing at Harpo’s bar again. Johnson receives a letter from Nettie addressed to Celie, takes money from his secret stash and helps Nettie, her husband, and Celie’s children return to the US, where they finally reunite while Johnson watches from a distance.
- Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Harris Johnson
- Desreta Jackson as young Celie
- Danny Glover as Albert Johnson (“Mister”)
- Oprah Winfrey as Sofia Johnson
- Margaret Avery as Shug Avery
- Táta Vega as Shug’s singing voice
- Akosua Busia as Nettie Harris
- Adolph Caesar as Old Mister (Albert’s Father)
- Willard Pugh as Harpo Johnson
- Rae Dawn Chong as Squeak
- Laurence Fishburne as Swain
- Carl Anderson as Reverend Samuel
- Grand Bush as Randy
- Dana Ivey as Miss Millie
- Bennet Guillory as Grady
- James Tillis as Henry “Buster” Broadnax
- Leonard Jackson as Alphonso “Pa” Harris
- Gayle King (uncredited) as Churchgoer
The film premiered on December 20, 1985, and went on general release on February 7, 1986. The Color Purple was shown at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival as a non-competing title.