If Only “The Color Purple” Had Loved All of Us

I know that a lot of Autostraddle readers have likely come to this review looking for one question to be answered: Will this iteration of The Color Purple be gay?

It’s fair to ask. Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name is the first, and remains the only, Pulitzer Prize winner with a Black queer woman protagonist. Celie, an abuse survivor with whom we travel from her girlhood in turn of the century rural Georgia through her late adulthood, quietly explores her lack of attraction to men (who’ve also been the source of her abuse) and her deep attraction to Shug Avery, a bisexual Blues singer. In the novel, Shug and Celie’s intimate relationship opens up a new confidence in Celie, ultimately allowing her to break past the cycle of what she’s endured. They are sisters, yes, but also lovers — all encompassing in the way that only happens when Black women are given space to fall in love with each other’s wholeness. They are each other’s healers, protectors, source of pleasure. But in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Oscar-nominated film, Shug and Celie’s relationship is instead played off as platonic.

During a 2011 retrospective of his work with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg reflected “I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those… I got a lot of criticism for that.” (Not enough criticism, if you ask me.) When a film adaptation of The Color Purple’s 2005 and 2015 staged musical was announced, what would come of Shug and Celie’s relationship was at certainly at the top of mind. For his part, Marcus Gardley, the queer screenwriter of the new Color Purple, noted that Shug and Celie’s relationship was at the core of his adaptation: “That’s part of the reason I got the job. My pitch lead off with, ‘This is a love story between two women.’ It was the most important thing to Alice Walker… I wanted the love story to be prominent and didn’t want to brush over that these two women are in love.”

Shug and Celie embrace during 2023's The Color Purple

So to answer that burning question, yes, it is gay. That’s not to say that I didn’t walk away without my quibbles or concerns, some of which we can talk about after the film’s wide release when its been seen by more audiences, but to the technical letter of the law, this is a queer movie. It makes clear Celie’s attraction to Shug and Shug’s interest in Celie in return. In particular, Taraji P. Henson’s understanding of Shug in these moments is resplendent.

As Shug Avery, Taraji P. Henson has reached a new height in her already storied career that I have to admit, I did not think possible. It is maybe because I was so wrongly doubtful of Henson’s ability to hold such a key musical role that she blew me away, not with her singing chops but with her commitment to embodying every aspect of Shug’s being.

In Henson’s hands, Shug melts the camera. It’s easy enough to play Shug as sexy, after all she’s one of the most famous sexual characters in Black canon. Henson shines by seeing depths of Shug’s hurt (there’s a subtle choice in a church scene between her and her father, played by David Alan Grier, that I keep returning back to). She takes Shug’s bisexuality seriously, even within the in-between beats of what’s not on the page.

Shug performs "Push Da Button" in Harpo's Juke Joint in 2023's The Color Purple

That said, while this new adaptation (being billed as “for a new generation” and “for a new audience” has become ubiquitous in the musical’s promo run) pushes Shug and Celie’s relationship closer to Walker’s intent than Spielberg did in 1985, I’m less convinced that it takes their relationship as far as did the staged productions. I’ve grappled with writing this review over the last few weeks, and that’s become something of a pain in my side.

For last 38 years, producers at the helm of The Color Purple (Spielberg and music industry legend Quincy Jones both served as executive producers of the 1985 film, Winfrey — whose role as Sofia in the original film is arguably the best of her career — has executive produced both Broadway adaptations, all three share producing credits on the new film) have seemed to be in their own complicated relationship with their source material. As a Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony winning testament to the strength of Black womanhood, spirituality, self-actualization, and resilient sisterhood, everyone seems ready to get on board. As a incredibly important, purposeful Black queer text by a Black queer woman author? Less so.

There’s almost an air of discomfort, an unspoken agreement: “OK we’ll finally say Celie and Shug were gay for each other — but not too much now on our (straight) Sisterhood Icons.” As if Celie and Shug’s queerness isn’t at the root of the very sisterhood we proclaim to be honoring. The Color Purple has never been only about Black women saving each other. It’s about Black women finding beauty and worth in each other, in all aspects of who we are, and on this Alice Walker could not be more clear: that means in our bedrooms, too.

I’ve seen staged productions of The Color Purple musical that somehow still portray Celie and Shug’s relationship as close platonic friends, despite having four full songs sung between the couple detailing their romance explicitly in the lyrics (“Dear God – Shug,” “Too Beautiful for Words,” “What About Love,” and the “What About Love Reprise” which showcases their break up). Of those four songs — in the 2023 rendition of The Color Purple, only two remain.

Walker, of course, has been remarkably consistent over the last 40 years in her reaction to these adaptations of her work. She hasn’t cared for them, but has also accepted that her novel is her own, and the film (plus what has come after) is its own work of separate imagination. She, and her daughter Rebecca, signed on as executive producers for 2023’s The Color Purple. I’m relieved, if nothing else, they are still getting checks off of her life’s work.

Celie and Nettie on a tree in The Color Purple

And perhaps on some level, that is what I keep bumping up against. What is a life’s work? A legacy? Alice Walker wrote a seminal Black queer text and went on to become the first Black woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In a career the heights of which few others will ever see, The Color Purple stands out as one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest works, and he’s still asked about his reluctance to include as much as a kiss nearly 40 years later. Oprah Winfrey has taken her portrayal as Sofia and over the decades carefully turned it  into a project that’s become synonymous with her name.

During a recent profile with People magazine in promotion for the film, Winfrey pondered the meaning of legacy. Fitting, in the middle of a press tour that has shown me more of Oprah donning the infamous purple than I’ve seen at any other point in my lifetime. She described a conversation with the late Maya Angelou, wherein Oprah hoped that the school she built for girls in South Africa would be what she was most known for. Dr. Angelou responded that none of us can predict our legacy, “your legacy is never one thing. Your legacy is every life you’ve touched.”

Every poster, trailer, and commercial promises that we are witnessing a Color Purple for a new generation. But what is that generation learning? What tools are we leaving them with? And what silences are we telling them are OK?

Danielle Brooks as Sophia, sitting on the porch, in the color purple

There is a lot to say about the new The Color Purple. I wasn’t personally a fan of all of director Blitz Bazawule’s stylized choices (I did not find they mapped well onto the tone of the source material), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how beautifully lit our melanin is on the screen. I wish Gardley’s script had followed more closely with both stage productions and the 1985 film when it comes to using Walker’s original words; there were more than several lines where I was puzzled at the choice to rewrite Walker for something more broad and honestly, worse. Black audiences can handle complicated language, and it’s hurtful not to trust them to do so. There are so many songs cut from the stage production that it borders on disrespectful to the original Broadway fans (and disrespectful to those with a reverence for Black theatre; I have a hard time imagining that there would be a choice to cut so many songs from Les Mis, for instance). Danielle Brooks is as good as you’ve heard as Sofia. She eats the screen alive.

For almost 40 years The Color Purple has been core to the DNA of Black American pop culture. It’s basically engraved in our bones, codified in how we speak. Celie and Shug and Squeak and Sofia and Nettie, they’ve become sisters to us at least as much as they are to each other. I’ve never had a clear answer for that, a reasonable explanation for why a graphic story about a woman’s abuse has become so beloved by Black audiences that we’re now greeted with cheery purple posters across the internet encouraging us to “celebrate” its release on Christmas with our families. But I think it’s about recognition. I think that it’s about the vulnerability of our humanity. Of seeing something and being able to sigh in no longer being alone.

Whatever else aside, I love that for us. I only wish that, over the years, The Color Purple had loved all of us, too.


The Color Purple is opens in theatres on December 25th.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 715 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I read The Color Purple as a girl. I must have been about 7/8 and I borrowed it from my aunt’s bookshelf one Christmas. It was the first book I’d ever read that had such heavy themes and the first time I’d ever read something about Black women in love. I’ve actually not revisited it since my girlhood because the memory of how it’s been frozen in my brain as a snapshot of a particular time in my life is really dear to me. But I’m sure there’s a lot that went over my 7 year old head.

  2. Thank you for this heartfelt review. Witnessing the live musical was such a powerful and loving experience for me, so it’s good for me to know in advance to temper my expectations with the musical movie.

  3. First of all, Taraji P Henson as Shug? Amazing. Not a big movie musical fan, but I will sacrifice to see HER. I read the book many (I mean MANY) years ago in college, and we discussed the book in class as a lesbian novel. It was a long time ago, granted, but I do recall it being very explicit between Shug and Celie. When I saw the Spielberg film, although touching and well acted, their love scene, if you could call it that, was downright embarrassing.Same thing with “Fried Green Tomatoes.” The women became fond friends instead of lovers as explicitly stated in a book. I’d love a remake of that one too!

  4. Thank you so much for this review. When they started marketing this remake of the musical I was skeptical…will someone actually be brave enough to make it as gay as it needs to be?

    I suppose it’s good to hear that SOME forward movement has been made in that respect, but sad to have my suspicions confirmed that it’s not enough. I really wish this was a moment when we pushed black straight audiences more. I remember seeing the play as a teen and my friend being SHOCKED that Celie and Shug kiss after “Too Beautiful for Words.”

    As a truly lifelong lover of every iteration of this story — from the book I first read, to watching the movie when some teacher didn’t feel like teaching (lol), to seeing both the original touring production and the revival…to rereading the book now…it just breaks my heart that Hollywood continues to refuse to show the true depths and stakes of Black queer women’s love in 2023. It’s just not right. I just reread the part of the book where Celie washes Shug for the first time. She says it’s like praying. We deserve that on screen.

  5. thank you so much for this review!! The novel The Color Purple was a uniquely intimate and personal experience for me. I found so many pieces of myself in the text. And yet, when it came to fellowship with Black people, it’s the Steven Spielberg film that seems to be a thread creating cultural social connections among fans. The quotes, the jokes, etc. But it’s not until I was at least 30, that I started making connections with people who not only appreciated and loved Alice Walker’s novel, but also found pleasure in discussing it and playing with the literature too. The theatre productions were queer social fandom experiences for me. I am looking forward to seeing where the revival film positions itself socially for me. I see some of my “elders” being hesitant to see it but most of my folks are as hype as I am!

  6. On the other hand Alice Walker is crazy anti-semitic (like praising David Icke, and
    writing poem which contain lines like “…follow the trail of “The Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way Into our collective consciousness.” so like maybe we should just look for a different iconic text?

      • I apologize that was thoughtless of me. Alice Walker is “extremely antisemitic”. However, my broader point is that it’s perhaps telling about how selective AS readers allyship is that they (quite correctly) want to disengage with JKR but when Jews are the target they are willing to overlook someone’s bigotry.

    • No we do not have to look for a different iconic text about black women b/c YOU think Alice Walker, whose child is half-Jewish, is “anti-semetic.” Any kind of criticism of Jews is called “anti-semetic” right now. It’s enough. This book has been a classic for over 40 years and is one of the few popular books about black women & we have to give it up b/c you don’t think a black woman kisses up to white Jews enough?

      • Walker’s writing includes praise for holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about Jews running the world, and (as oyvey notes) really nasty stuff about the Talmud. That’s not an attack on “white Jews”, it’s an attack on all Jews. And her daughter’s Jewish father is among those pointing to that truth.

        See also Walker’s transphobia and support for the aforementioned JK Rowling.

        I enjoy Carmen’s piece and feel it’s good and valuable to critically evaluate adaptions of The Color Purple. But can we please not pretend Walker isn’t a bigot. Just because someone is subject to oppression themselves doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to the oppression of others.

  7. So grateful for this review. Really appreciate all the considerations you brought to this work – it’s particularly helpful to place it in the context of Black theatre, because the 2005 and 2015 productions were such a big deal in the community.

    My grandma took me and all my cousins to see the 2005 version, because supporting Black theatre was the thing to do in her upper middle class Black community. It was revolutionary because it was the first time I’d seen representations of queer Blackness on screen (and as much as my grandma was uncomfortable when I came out years later, I have to chuckle when I think that she really did help water the seed of me understanding my queerness).

    She came around to me being queer in the end. And I imagine that the humanizing power of the Color Purple helped with that, too.

    Excited to see the movie while holding all the complexity of what you’ve written here.

  8. In 1985, Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg involvement were a big deal to garner as much attention for this movie. In 2023, I question their influence.

    For one, I was concerned that this edition would be too similar to the 1985 version. If it is going to be watered down, it should only be diluted to the Broadway levels. I get trying to appeal to a wide audience, but I rather something flavorful. In addition niche audience material has proven profitable – i.e. Tyler Perry.

    The Second issue I have is the ability “to go there” for Jones and Spielberg. Amistad felt like a fun ship cruise versus the drama and emotion Schindler’s List evoked.

    Meanwhile Jones experienced a mother with a schizophrenic breakdown. I wonder if this impacted him to not want to delve too deeply into complex emotions. Does he have the ability to understand positive Black female relationships?

    I will watch this movie to see Fantasia emote and the other performances. However, I will also see this movie to complain and then go finally read the book.

  9. up to speak of as Shug never commits herself to either. In earnest, there’s little more queerer than becoming friends with a person you’ve once been intimate with. To act as if the relationship between Shug and Celie is reduced, however, is dishonest. To pretend that the relationship between Celie, Shug, Sophia, Mary Agnes and Nettie isn’t the thematic crux is the book is also a fantasy. Yes there is a queer storyline in the book. No, that’s not even mostly what it’s about. Please, go back and read. As a woman descended from American chattel slaves, I’m also going to take this review to task for it’s very disrespectful questioning of African Americans’ perspective on this work as one worth celebrating. The Color Purple resonants with our community deeply because it’s a story about us. It is the story of our abuse. It is the story of our losses. It is the story of our decision to fight in spite. It is a story of our faith. It is the story of our love for each other. It is a story of redemption and it is a story of triumph. The fact that you reduced it to Celie’s abuse is tone deaf. Really? That’s all you see when you encounter the story — a victim? I get you loved the play and all, but consider you may not have been the best person to write this review. Were you really interested in the film’s depictions of queerness you’d have at least spent as much time talking about Fantasia’s Celie or the wonderful Coleman Domingo as you did Taraji P. Henson’s performance. But it’s clear this review was mostly a guise for your frustration that the film wasn’t close enough to the musical. As a fan of the source, as a woman who comes from the deep south, it squares well with the source material and African American audiences love it.

    • Oops — I didn’t post my entire comment last time.

      This is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever read on autostraddle. Foremost I’m a PhD and professor in African American literature. I often teach The Color Purple and I’m very familiar with the text. As a Black lesbian and a scholar of African American literature, I well understand the cultural significance of this work. All the same, at this review, I laugh. Is it lost on anyone else that the reviewer can’t speak effectively to the source material (the novel)? I get it, I get it. The Color Purple is one of the few representation of Black queer sexuality that has ever made it to the mainstream. But we have to be honest about what it is. The sexual relationship between Shug and Celie lasts about as long in the novel as it does in the film. Both Mr. and Celie are in love with Shug and while she has sex with both of them (notably she only ever overtly expresses enjoyment regarding her sex with Mr. — not Celie) she ultimately chooses neither of them. There is no break up to speak of as Shug never commits herself to either. In earnest, there’s little more queerer than becoming friends with a person you’ve once been intimate with. To act as if the relationship between Shug and Celie is reduced, however, is dishonest. To pretend that the relationship between Celie, Shug, Sophia, Mary Agnes and Nettie isn’t the thematic crux is the book is also a fantasy. Yes there is a queer storyline in the book. No, that’s not even mostly what it’s about. Please, go back and read. As a woman descended from American chattel slaves, I’m also going to take this review to task for it’s very disrespectful questioning of African Americans’ perspective on this work as one worth celebrating. The Color Purple resonants with our community deeply because it’s a story about us. It is the story of our abuse. It is the story of our losses. It is the story of our decision to fight in spite. It is a story of our faith. It is the story of our love for each other. It is a story of redemption and it is a story of triumph. The fact that you reduced it to Celie’s abuse is tone deaf. Really? That’s all you see when you encounter the story — a victim? I get you loved the play and all, but consider you may not have been the best person to write this review. Were you really interested in the film’s depictions of queerness you’d have at least spent as much time talking about Fantasia’s Celie or the wonderful Coleman Domingo as you did Taraji P. Henson’s performance. But it’s clear this review was mostly a guise for your frustration that the film wasn’t close enough to the musical. As a fan of the source, as a woman who comes from the deep south, it squares well with the source material and African American audiences love it.

      • They spend at least 30% of the book living in Memphis together at Shugs house…and when Shug leaves Celie to chase after the 19 yo member of her band Celie is heartbroken and Shug knows when she breaks the news over Chinese food that it’s breaking Celies expectations of their relationship. While it is true that lesbian sex specifically is not depicted more than once in the book and is not the what Walker centers in their relationship, it’s an interesting choice on your part to downplay the centrality of the long lasting romantic nature of Shug and Celies relationship and how important that is to Celies self actualization. Also have a PhD and am a black queer Afam scholar who finds your reading curious, at best.

        Just because our folks (black folks) have decided to focus their cultural attention on the aspects of the story that speak to the joys and pains of being Black in the U.S. South, and have chosen to downplay the centrality of queerness…doesn’t mean it’s not central to Walker’s vision ot a reasonable interpretation of the text.

        • Have I lied, though? The fact is the mutual nature of their romantic relationship is dubious at best. What’s interesting is that people seem to strategically misremember or misrepresent this. Shug does love Celie deeply, but in ways that arguably moves beyond the erotic. Celie does long for Shug romantically and Shug doesn’t choose her in that way. It’s simply dishonest to pretend this iteration of the film represents their relationship in a way that is egregiously less overt than the novel. It may not have been what another director would’ve chosen. It doesn’t mean the film “doesn’t love all of us” either.

          “Curious” — Wait, was I not supposed to say something that conflicts with the Black queer status quo?

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