A MODERN CLASSIC
From novel to film to musical to film, Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ returns to screens
The newest version of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ has taken the provocative prize-winning novel and turned it into a cinematic musical that speaks to history and imagination, while the US appropriately observes Black History Month.
Forty years ago, back when I was in the American foreign service, assigned in Northern Japan, I was asked by a group of young Japanese university literature instructors to support a study group on contemporary American literature. The group members had all studied at various American universities, and they were fascinated by the new generation of African American writers coming into prominence — especially women.
In response to this request, together, we designed a plan where we would order multiple copies of those books the group had decided to read. Then, the group’s members would take turns leading a colloquy on each of those authors over the course of a year. The group selected writers like Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange (author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which opens at the Joburg Theatre on 16 February), Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Paule Marshall, but they were particularly insistent Alice Walker was primus inter pares for them, especially since she had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her novel, “The Color Purple.”
The seminar turned into an educational project for me as well. It introduced me to a group of writers I had heard about, but, for the most part, I had not, previously, spent much time reading their works. More usually, my fiction reading had been on older, classic works by African American writers, or on Japanese, Indonesian and South African writers, in response to my overseas assignments.
Coincidentally, though, we had recently hosted African American novelist David Bradley for guest talks on contemporary American literature. Besides his own recently published, critically acclaimed novel, The Cheneysville Incident, Bradley, had also written a lengthy reflection on Alice Walker for The New York Times. Over dinner, following one of his lectures, he shared insights about Walker’s work and ideas.
As he explained in our conversation and as he had written in his essay, “The black movement, with which she still identified, was split on questions of anti-Semitism, integration, class, region, religion and, increasingly, sex. The women’s movement, of which she was perhaps the most artistic and evocative contemporary spokesperson, was increasingly being accused of racism and had factions of its own.
“Alice Walker was black, a pacifist but a rejector of the organized religions to which that tradition belonged. She was married to a white, indeed, a Jew. She was a rejector of black middle-class education and pretensions, and an acceptor of white upper-class education — but not pretensions. She was a Southerner in the ‘liberal’ North, a feminist who was also a wife and a mother. She was also sensitive enough to be hurt by criticism.”
The author was stung by criticisms of her novel when those critics argued she was unduly denigrating African Americans. She would reply that she was, among other things, recounting some of the stories from her own family’s past.
After her novel had been filmed the first time, she had written, “For me the filming of my book was a journey to the imagined and vastly re-arranged lives [of] my mother and father and grandparents before I was born (among other things); it was a re-created world I hoped desperately my mother would live long enough to enter again through film. I used to amuse myself, on the set, watching Steven [Spielberg, the director] work, and thinking of the gift he was preparing for a woman he had never seen.”
Along the way, I came to learn Walker had been the progenitor of the concept of “womanism” (her preference in contrast to the term, feminism). It was a term she had popularised in her 1983 book, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose, denoting a movement within feminism, primarily championed by black feminists. The term had been first coined by Walker in a short story, Coming Apart, published a few years earlier.
As Walker argued, womanism was not simply different from feminism; it was better. Or, as she wrote, “Part of our tradition as black women is that we are universalists. Black children, yellow children, red children, brown children, that is the black woman’s normal, day-to-day relationship. In my family alone, we are about four different colors. When a black woman looks at the world, it is so different … when I look at the people in Iran they look like kinfolk. When I look at the people in Cuba, they look like my uncles and nieces.”
From novel to film to musical to film
Now, in the case of Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, the telling of the story has gone through four different iterations. First, of course, was her original novel. Second was the 1985 film of the story, directed by Steven Spielberg. The third and more recent version was a Broadway musical that has now had worldwide exposure. Most recently, now there is a new film, based on that musical, directed by Ghanaian director, Blitz Bazawule.
Given its themes of female subjugation and the violence exacted against them in so many different ways (as well as the subtext of same-sex intimacy), it must have taken a leap of faith to see this work as the appropriate subject for a musical, both live and on film, but, nevertheless, here we are with a significantly global phenomenon. Gayle King (a close friend of Oprah Winfrey, the woman who in her first acting role had created the character of Sophie in the Spielberg film, and then became a producer and backer of the musical and cinematic musical) has spoken of this power of transmutability.
As King said, “And now with Blitz Bazawule’s film, you have the third interpretation. It’s interesting that this one piece of work can have all these adaptations and forms, and all of them are still brilliant and still beautiful.”
Before looking more deeply at the differences of these iterations, we should think more generally about how works of imagination may transcend their original circumstances (and limitations) as they are repurposed in different hands — and for different times and audiences.
Consider Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare had drawn his play from an earlier bit of Italian fiction, turning it into one of his best-loved tragedies. Over the years, it has been filmed numerous times, configured into operas, scripted into a Peter Ustinov play, Romanoff and Juliet that was a cautionary comedic tale of the Cold War, and, more recently, into West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim.
That trio took the story to New York City and embedded it in a struggle between working-class white gang members and Puerto Rican immigrant gang members — but, by tweaking the ending to allow Maria to live on in her agonies, gave it yet more pathos. Classical music composers like Prokofiev have also memorably composed music for a ballet of the story, and filmmaker Baz Luhrmann even placed in a kind of post-apocalyptic Miami, rather than Renaissance Verona.
Or consider the path of the story contained in the opera, La Boheme. It was first a novel and then a play about the rebellious Parisian artistic underclass, then Giacomo Puccini turned into his best-loved opera. Most recently, it became Rent, the Broadway flagship musical for the Aids era. Throughout, the tragedy remained, but the destruction from the disease was society’s fault.
In cases like those, the bones of a strong storyline have remained, even as the action is transformed in response to different eras and audiences. In the process, works have sometimes ended up demonstrating new depth as a result. Likewise, for The Color Purple, the shift from novel to film to musical to film musical has altered the story from its original texture — adding some elements, and dramatically altering others.
Triumph over torments
In her original work, Walker had created an epistolatory novel, and situating it in a small, nearly all-African-American community in the Sea Islands landscape of the state of Georgia. Her protagonist, Celie, has been progressively battered and broken, first by her step-father and then by Mister, the brute she has been married off to, even as her two babies (products of rapes by her step-father whom she believes is her biological father) are taken away from her and given to an adopting family. Her sister, Nettie, is forced to seek shelter with that same missionary family as they set sail for Africa.
Consequently, Celie is left with no one to appeal to for help or from whom she can seek comfort, other than God, via a conversation with him through imagined letters to him. (Mister, meanwhile, refuses to give Celie any letters that have arrived for her from her sister over many years.)
Eventually, she finds both community and a sense of freedom and possibility through a liberating lesbian affair with the blues singer, Shug Avery, a free spirit who, simultaneously, has been the object of lust by Mister.
Through all this drama, by the end of the novel, Celie has triumphed. She has remade herself into a liberated spirit, become an entrepreneur, and, finally, is reunited with her sister, now returned from Africa. She has become the living embodiment of the lyrics of Summertime, from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (and more on that work a bit later). As the words, sung to an infant, say: “One of these mornings, You’re gonna rise up singing, Yes, you’ll spread your wings, And you’ll take to the sky….”
Womanhood or womanism — and the community Celie has torturously gained from her female circle — has triumphed over her torments at the hand of male oppression and violence through her life. In the story, there is a hint of the racial dichotomy and the deep segregation that was a part of it in the Georgia of the time of the novel, but, save for one violent incident, it is largely implied, as Celie and the rest of Walker’s characters live their lives in a small, isolated African American community. (Those Sea Islands are where anthropologists have identified elements of African languages and customs among the descendants of slaves, a fact surely known to Alice Walker.)
Almost immediately upon its publication, given its visceral power, her novel gained fervent proponents and admirers — and such support was strengthened once the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But there have also been critics who despaired about its darker messages about men — and about black men in particular — who are nearly certain to be brutes.
As Alisha Harris, a PBS radio host, has said regarding this brutality and placing it historically in the criticism of the portrayals of black lives on film, has written, “…this goes back as far as Gone with the Wind, when the NAACP was upset with that film, but they were also happy to celebrate the fact that Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar [for Best Supporting Actress]. You’ll see that often. Any time these movies would come up, someone from the NAACP or another activist or even James Baldwin would say, ‘This movie is embarrassing. It’s terrible, it’s bad for our race, but yet this performance still rises above the text.’ That absolutely played out in the same way with The Color Purple reactions: ‘We’re happy to see all these Black people getting work, and we’re happy to see them giving these amazing performances, but why did it have to be this film?’”
When Walker’s book was first turned into the film by Steven Spielberg, with Danny Glover as Mister, and Whoopie Goldberg as Celie, as well as Oprah Winfrey, and Laurence Fishburne, among others in the cast, many critics applauded Winfrey’s portrayal of Celie, even as some of those critics and audience members (and especially black Americans) were appalled by the viciousness of Glover’s character.
Movieweb summarised such criticisms, saying, “The Color Purple (1985) faced controversy for perpetuating the stereotype that Black men are aggressive and violent, with the main male characters being portrayed as abusive and villainous. Some critics argued that the film would have benefited from a Black director, who could have handled the racial issues and added authenticity to the story, instead of Steven Spielberg, a white filmmaker.”
Moreover, “The film received backlash for toning down the LGBTQ+ elements present in the original novel, with Spielberg citing the need to maintain a PG-13 rating as the reason behind the changes. However, this decision was seen by some as a missed opportunity for representation and progress.”
Singing a driving element
By the time the musical and then the cinematic musical were under way, public sensibilities over the depictions of LGBTQ+I life had changed, even though, in the interest of making works capable of achieving the broadest appeal, both projects still kept that aspect of the original storyline so understated one might have missed it entirely.
In the new film musical, that lesbian affair becomes a dream sequence that leans heavily on Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film dances. Moreover, the deeply affecting epistolatory texture of the original story was further underplayed in order to make the narrative clearer, without having a narrator’s voice throughout.
What the musical versions have done, however, is to incorporate the rhythms and textures of traditional African American music, especially in scenes featuring church hymnody and work songs as woven into the music composed by Allee Willis, Brenda Russell, and Steven Bray and playwright Marsha Norman. (Quincy Jones had created the soundtrack for the first movie.)
The new film, in particular, makes the singing a driving element of the action — with its smooth transitions from the spoken (or shouted) words to song, and then on to dance. This becomes especially vivid with call and response singing by a work crew hammering and sawing boards to build a “juke joint” (a rural shebeen with live music) and with the wedding singing. In the new film, the music is delivered by a gifted ensemble of singers including talents like Taraji Henson as Shug Avery, along with some stunning piano riffs by John Batiste.
On stage in Johannesburg, the live production took on a magnetic connection for many. As our volume on the history of the Joburg Theatre described it, theatre staff described how it melted away the proscenium arch traditionally dividing cast and audience.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Theatre Review: The Color Purple – singing with one collective voice
As our book noted, “…in the final moments of the play, when female protagonist Celie’s husband, despite all the humiliations he had inflicted upon her over the years, begged her to take him back, one female patron in the theatre, incensed by the thought Celie might give her reprobate husband yet one more chance, stood up and shouted from the audience, ‘Don’t you dare!’ She seemed to be saying what every other woman in the theatre might have been thinking at the time as well.”
By the time the musical became a film for the second time, the producers were Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders and Quincy Jones, with Ghanaian Blitz Bazawule as the director. It should not have been surprising that there were references to Ghana in the clothing of Celie’s family in the film’s final scene with Nettie’s return to America from Africa.
In this movie as well, Fatima Robinson’s choreography was almost a recapitulation of African American popular and concert dance and reprises of some of Donald Byrd’s choreography as well. Some of it even seemed like a homage to Alvin Ailey’s signature work, Revelations. The self-taught Robinson had no formal dance or choreographic training, but in her career she has had high-visibility work on music videos and other commercial efforts.
By the time the movie concludes, we have entered a gauzy, almost mythic depiction of the power of a symbolic circle of community. On a banquet table we recognise the importance of hand-made quilts in African American culture, and we see a gathering of people dressed in white, and the return of the prodigals from Africa, attired in stylised semi-kente cloth in white and light grey. All’s well, all is forgiven (albeit not forgotten), as the camera moves back for a panoramic shot from on high.
Porgy and Bess
In thinking about the evolution of this story, one other comparison in the evolution of The Color Purple from an extraordinary but controversial novel to family entertainment (at least for those above 13) comes to mind. And that, of course, is the American opera, “Porgy and Bess” — a work that also has its roots in the culture of the Sea Islands (although of South Carolina, rather than in Georgia) then brought to the city of Charleston.
Back in 1925, intrigued with African American music and its influence on jazz, American composer George Gershwin had been searching for a way to pique his interest. He was invited to the South Carolina family plantation of DeBose Heyward, an author who had written a novel, Porgy, and whom with his sister Dorothy had turned that novel into a play. Gershwin spent months listening to the music all around him, then composing a score to the storyline and lyrics crafted by his brother Ira and Heyward.
In 1976, the full work with all of the music and recitatives was revived by the Houston Grand Opera Company. In that production, the work’s clearly operatic nature was revealed, rather than a more truncated, Broadway-style musical.
Like The Color Purple, this story is replete with violence. Men brutalise women and a particularly brutal man is killed in a knife fight. There is prostitution; there is drug addiction. But there is also glorious music. And some of that music has deeply penetrated our collective global consciousness.
How a creative work delivers on its promise — through all its mutations and adaptations — can be a magical thing that changes as it passes through the hands of different producers, directors, actors, singers, dancers, choreographers, and cinematographers. But we know it when we see it. DM