This week, I needed a break from preparing for my streamline superhero lecture for the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival (shameless plug says what?). With that goal, I sat down to watch The Color Purple for the first time as part of The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Turns out, if you need an emotional or intellectual break, The Color Purple is not the movie you should choose. (Or maybe it is, if you’re into blubbering like a baby in front of the television for two and a half hours.) However, out of a stubborn sense of duty towards The Film Experience and procrastination towards my Sisyphean lecture notes, I gritted my teeth, grabbed my tissues, and powered through the Spielberg sob-fest. Then, about halfway through the movie, a ray of sunshine named Shug Avery shined through, all sequins and singing, and I knew I (like Celie) was a goner.
This is the very public seduction of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) by the glamorous and gay Shug Avery (Margaret Avery, in a foxy turn). Shug starts her song slyly smiling over her shoulder at the nervous Celie. Then, swaying to the upbeat song, Shug sidles up to Celie, before kneeling by Celie to clasp her hand and stroke her cheek. Celie is starstruck and smitten by this woman who before she only feared. It’s the beginning of Celie’s awakening as a woman, and if this movie had been made 10 years later, it would have been the beginning of the sexual relationship between the two characters.
Alas, The Color Purple goes the way of Fried Green Tomatoes, another film infamous for deleting the sexual element of the relationship between its main characters. (Or rather, since The Color Purple came first, I should say Fried Green Tomatoes gets the Color Purple treatment.) Certainly it’s disappointing to see this important aspect of Celia’s story whitewashed. Celie’s is the story of a woman gaining agency over her identity, overcoming how 1920 American society treats her for her gender, race, and sexuality. Unfortunately, the film is too squeamish to deal with this one important aspect of her life.
However, I can’t condemn Spielberg for his decision (a decision he admits he regrets). When The Color Purple was made in 1985, there were hardly any queer characters portrayed three-dimensionally onscreen. This was just two years after The Hunger, which really only used Catherine Deneuve’s seduction of Susan Sarandon for purposes of titillation. Desert Hearts, which came out the same year as The Color Purple, wasn’t exactly a big hit. It would be years before mainstream media started respecting its queer characters. And really, this is still an ongoing struggle. LGBT people of color are basically the queer cinema unicorn; rare at best and usually fantasy. (This makes Sofia, the transgender woman in the Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black, the queer cinema Pegasus.) So instead of denouncing The Color Purple for being gutless, think of it as an example of how far we’ve come, and be glad that you no longer have to reinvent context for purposely ambiguous scenes like this:
That is, unless you’re watching Rizzoli & Isles.