The Color Purple, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, is a beautiful story that has, for nearly the entirety of my life, lived quietly in the marrow of my subconscious.
It is, in fact, a story I encountered for the first time on three separate occasions.
My first encounter with The Color Purple came in December of 1985, when I went with my family to watch Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Walker's novel. My godfather, Willard E. Pugh, had secured a starring role in the film, playing the character of Harpo. Harpo is the husband of Sofia, played by Oprah Winfrey, the son of Mister, played by Danny Glover, and the step-son of Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg. While Celie is the central character of the novel and Goldberg, by extension, the star of the film, Willard, so far as I was concerned, was the only reason the movie existed.
Willard, along with my parents, brothers, sister, grandmother, and myself, went to the Edwards Cinema on Haven Avenue (which, sadly, no longer shows movies and is now used as a church), next to the Brunswick Deer Creek Lanes bowling ally in Rancho Cucamonga. We saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon and, in my memory, there weren't many people in the theater, which bothered me, because, for obvious reasons it was the most important movie ever made. I was eight years old that Saturday afternoon and as I sat in the theater watching Spielberg's film, I had no idea what it was about.
Not a clue.
I knew that Willard played the character of Harpo, but for the first twenty or so minutes of the film, Harpo was a little boy. That boy felt to me like an impostor, taking up the precious film time that belonged to Willard. I wanted him to hurry and grow up. And when finally he did, there was Willard, putting a saddle on a horse. It was a small miracle seeing him on the screen, though I was far too young to appreciate the complexities of Harpo's character. Harpo is, at his core, a kind man who grew up under the violent hand of a cruel father. When he wasn't getting beat himself, he watched his father, Mister, beat his step-mother, Celie.
"Harpo complain bout all the plowing he have to do.
His daddy say, you gonna do it.
Harpo nearly big as his daddy. He strong in body but weak in will. He scared.
Me and him out in the field all day. Us sweat, chopping and plowing. I'm roasted coffee bean color now. He black as the inside of a chimney. His eyes be sad and thoughtful. His face begin to look like a woman face."
-Alice Walker, "The Color Purple"
While, at the end of the film, I had no idea of what it was about, I was nonetheless satisfied with the experience.
My second encounter with The Color Purple came ten years later, when I was about 18 years old. Having been watching and enjoying movies for, literally, longer than I can remember, I considered myself something of a film buff. I watched any and every movie I could get my hands on and at some point, not long after my eighteenth birthday, it occurred to me I should watch Willard's film again—this time with a more mature, sophisticated eye. So, on a random weekday afternoon, I made some popcorn and sat alone in my room watching The Color Purple.
More than once, I found myself crying during the film, which was both tragic and uplifting all at once. I also had a much better appreciation for the power of Willard's performance, the way he articulated, with his beautiful acting ability, Harpo's sensitivity, the way he wanted to love his woman, Sofia, but didn't really know how, because of the ugly example set for him by his father.
"Harpo want to know what to do to make Sofia mind. He sit out on the porch with Mr. _____. He say, I tell her one thing, she do another. Never do what I say. Always backtalk.
To tell the truth, he sound a little proud of this to me.
Mr. _____ don't say nothing. Blow smoke.
I tell her she can't be all the time going to visit her sister. Us married now, I tell her. Your place is here with the children. She say, I'll take the children with me. I say, Your place is with me. She say, You want to come? She keep primping in front of the glass, getting the children ready at the same time.
You ever hit her? Mr. _____ ast.
Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarass."
-Alice Walker, "The Color Purple"
When I finished watching The Color Purple again for the first time, I felt like I'd discovered this amazing jewel that had been hiding in plain sight since 1985. It was a movie that, to me, felt important, both cinematically and socially, and for Willard to have been a part of it left me feeling an overwhelming sense of pride.
Clearly, I figured, it must have been well represented at the Academy Awards. So I did a bit of research and found that it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg and Best Supporting Actress for Winfrey. It didn't win any of them. Out of Africa won the Academy Award for Best Picture and it remains, out of equal parts loyalty and animosity, a movie that I have never seen.