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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.