From Walker’s pen strokes to Spielberg’s camera angles, ‘The Color Purple’ tells a hauntingly beautiful story of a woman who is chained at every limb by shackles of race, sex and sexuality. From sympathy to disgust, from resignation to faith, and from downright submission to transcendent triumph, “exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties and triumphs of black women" (O’Brien), the film asks one basic question: ‘how much can you endure before you can exclaim that “I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way...I can't apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to... We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful...We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.” (Walker).
One of the biggest focal themes of the movie is the power dynamic of the gender binary in the film’s society. The movie opens with the shots of Nettie playing with Celie, two young girls, and the first man that is introduced to the scene is their father, Alphonso. Thus in its very introduction of characters, the film sets up a power dynamic: the father in a position of power, and his daughters in a position of submission. And with that, this dynamic of the strong man controlling his weak female counterpart runs through most of the film. The subsequent scene of the father taking Celie’s new born from her, despite her cries is an assertion to the same effect. Then later on, when mister shows up at their doorstep, the way Alphonso offers Celie to him without even talking to her about it is yet another example of the misanthropy of the sexist society, as she is made to walk out of the house and turn and twirl for the viewing pleasures of Mister. Continuing on the same patterns is the treatment of Celie at the hands of Mister; from making her do all the housework, dealing with his unruly children, and slapping her the one time she raises her point of view in front of him while combing the child’s hair. This dynamic thus continues for Celie through the better part of the length of the film.
However, the film does break from that dynamic through a few characters. Shattering that perfect hegemony of man at the expense of women is the character of Sophia. As a woman who refuses to be mistreated by anyone, Sophia is a character with an iron backbone, who even in her first scene, stands up to Albert, even though she is in his house. Furthermore, she again contests masculine authority over her when Celie, jealous of her strength and solidarity suggests that Harpo beat her, when she not only gives Harpo a black eye, but also comes back and exclaims before a timid Celie that “girl child ain’t safe in a family o’ mens” (Spielberg) and that “all her life she had to fight”. She even stands up to Miss Milley when she asks her if she will be her maid, and she exclaims “HELL NO!” (Spielberg), before punching out the mayor, resisting anyone’s identity assuming authority over any aspect of her. Similarly, another character that presents herself with some strength before men is Shug Avery, making the very Mister who hit Celie cook her meals and bend over backwards trying to please her. However, it would be amiss to not realize that even though these characters do assume a certain amount of solidarity and métier in the face of man, their stories aren’t any easier for it. Sofia ends up being beaten and imprisoned, ultimately serving the very woman she refused in a public outburst, while Shug Avery gave up her very name “Lily” to be who she is. Thus the world of the film presents a very Hamlet-like paradox for a woman, to either live in a man’s shadow and die in his servitude, or to rise up against the might of man, and struggle to survive.
While the plight of a woman at the hands of a man serving as one of the bigger themes of the film, another important subject of...
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