Steven Spielberg’s film is based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same title. It is the heart-wrenching story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). Celie is raped by her father, gives birth to two children who are immediately taken from her and sold. When a neighboring widower comes by to request marrying Celie’s younger sister Nettie. Celie’s father offers Celie to him instead, along with a cow.
The man is Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), but throughout most of the film, Celie calls him “Mister.” Living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century, Celie’s journey is one of self-discovery through discrimination and violence, mostly from the hands of those who are to love her. That summer, Nettie shows up at the Johnson’s home. She has escaped her father, who will not keep his hands to himself. Mister is okay with Nettie coming to live with them, because he has had his eyes on her for a long time.
The move is good for Celie. The sisters have always had a deep, spiritual connection. Nettie, who goes to school, teaches Celie how to read, including Charles Dickson’s Oliver Twist. Celie seems to find solace in Oliver Twist, for she too feels orphaned.
On her way to school one day, Mister makes an attempt to rape Nettie. She, however, refuses to become a victim. Furious that she refused him and furious that she kicked him, he violently throws her out of his house. It is one of the most intense scenes of the film. Mister is yelling and screaming, all while throwing Nettie’s belongings. Nettie and Celie cling to each other, and Mister violently pries them apart. Nettie shouts over and over, “Why!” Nettie, played so well by Akosua Busia, carries this scene. She represents Celie salvation. Her relationship with her sister, is the only thing that soothes Celie’s soul. With her gone, that sense of calmness and salvation is gone. And along with it, all hope.
Nettie cries out to Celie as Mister continues to force her off his property, “Nothing but death can keep me from you!”
From then on, the Johnson mailbox becomes a focal point. The sober shots of the empty mailbox represent the emptiness in Celie’s heart. Celie longs for a letter from Nettie to show up in that mailbox. “She said she would write,” Celie narrates, “but she never does.” Mister threatens her to open that mailbox, so Celie never really knows.
Mister gets a letter from Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Shug is a pivotal character in this film. We first meet her as she comes into to town to sing. Celie sees in Shug who she wants to be. If she only has the courage.
One night Mister brings Shug Avery to the house, drunk and sick. Mister tries to care for her, but he can’t. He doesn’t know how. Celie, meanwhile, cooks, baths, and brushes Shug’s hair. A relationship between the two women begins to form, one that is more intense and sexual in Walker’s novel than in Spielberg’s film. It is this relationship, like Celie’s relationship with her sister that is Celie’s salvation. When Shug is around, Mister does not beat Celie. When Shug is around, Celie can be herself.
Shug offers more than just salvation to Celie, she empowers her to the point of transformation. But more on that later.
Shug is the main entertainment at Harpo’s bar. There is drinking, singing and laughing, and all kinds of carrying on. A fight breaks out, with Sofia at the start of it. In the midst of this bar scene, the camera takes us across the swamps and fields to the nearby church. It is only seconds long, but it has a significant impact on the story. With directors like Steven Spielberg, scenes like that may seem out of place, but are actually very intentional.
The inclusion of the church and the preacher giving a sermon against such sinful behavior as the bar scene illustrates the tension between sinfulness and righteousness. Or, more accurately, perceived sinfulness and perceived righteousness. There is a perceived understanding that treating your wife as another piece of property is acceptable. While singing jazz and the blues at a bar is not.
Shug goes to the church to see the preacher. She stands in the back of the church talking to the preacher who is sitting on the front pew facing forward. He refuses to turn and face Shug, no matter how much she pleads with him. He gets up from the pew, walks into another room and closes the door, all without saying a word. Shug backs out of the church, closing the church doors, symbolizing her relationship with the Church and with her father, the preacher. Her father will not look at her for he will look at sinfulness.
With the doors closed on the relationship with her father, Shug leaves town again, this time for Memphis. Celie dreams of going with her, escaping “Mister Jail,” and finally breaking free. But she doesn’t quite have the courage yet to stand up to him.
In the spring of 1936, Shug returns to the Johnson’s home, this time with a husband, Grady. While the men are drinking, Shug checks the mailbox and sees a letter for Celie. It is from Nettie.
While the two men are out of the house, Shug and Celie go through the whole house until they find the other letters from Nettie.. She learns that Nettie has been a nanny for African-American missionaries who were serving in Africa. The missionaries’ children are Adam and Olivia, Celie’s children that her father sold to the missionaries.
This connection to her sister begins a change in Celie. When finally see – and hear – the change when the family is gathered at the dinner table. Shug announces that she and Grady are going to be leaving soon. She also announces that they are taking Celie with them. Mister does not like this idea. Celie, standing up from the table, speaks her own voice for the first time:
You’re a low-down dirty dog! It’s time to get away from you . . . You took my sister Nettie away from me. You knew she was the only somebody in the world who loved me . . She’s coming home . . we’ll all get together and we’ll whip your ass! She’s got my children and they know other languages.
As they leave the house, Mister shouts to Celie, “You’re black, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all!”, which sums up how Celie thought of herself for her whole life at the oppressive hands of men who were suppose to love her. As the car drives away, Celie shouts back, “I may be black, poor. I may even be ugly. But I’m here!”
In the fall of 1937 and Mister’s life has gone down hill. The house and property are neglected, just as his own life. Celie comes home for her father’s funeral, only to learn that he was her stepfather. Celie, though still disgusted that he rapped her, has a sense of relief that her children are not her half-siblings. Celie inherits her birth father’s property. Celie moves into the house and starts a seamstress shop in town.
One afternoon as Celie and Shug walk through the fields of purple flowers that she and Nettie did as children. Shug compares people’s indifference to the flowers with their indifference to God. It is a theological statement that brings to mind the scene where Shug closes the doors of the church.
Shug: You just walk past the color purple and don’t notice it.
Celie: You mean that God just wants to be loved.
Shug: Everything wants to be loved.
We go back to Harpo’s bar where Shug is singing. Across the water, just as before, the camera takes us to the church where the preacher is preaching. The song Shug sings includes these words, “God is trying to tell you something.” Someone in the congregation interrupts the preacher to tell him, “God is trying to tell you something.”
The choir starts to sing, and it at first overpowers Shug and her band. It’s not long before Shug starts singing with the choir, and makes her way to the church. The crowd from Harpo’s follows her. When the crowd gets to the church, Shug flies open the church doors singing with the choir, “God is trying to tell you something.”
Shug and the preacher meet in front of the altar and embrace. Shug whispers to him, “See, Daddy, sinners have a soul too!”
This is such an amazing scene! Where previously these two worlds – the righteous and the sinful – were separate now they collide in a powerful way. Shug is the prodigal daughter coming home, opening the doors that she closed on her relationship with the church and her father. It is also a transforming moment for her father, the preacher. The moment is a reminder of the powerful transformation that can occur through reconciliation.
Mister, Albert, has been sitting on his front porch this whole time, listening to all the singing. With the choir singing as the backdrop, Albert checks the mail and there is something from the immigration office for Celie. He gets a handful of cash out of the hiding place. He goes downtown to the immigration office and the next thing we see is a car pulling up to Celie’s place.
It is Nettie and the children back from Africa. Celie and Nettie are finally reunited in the fields of purple flowers at their home place. Albert watches the reunion from a distance. The only person who sees him is Shug, who smiles to herself, knowing that Mister has finally grown up.
The women in The Color Purple, including Sopia (Oprah Winfrey), display for us what the journey through Lent results in: Transformation.