The Color Purple (film)

The Color Purple is a 1985 American coming-of-age period drama film directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Menno Meyjes, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker. It was Spielberg's eighth film as a director, and was a change from the summer blockbusters for which he had become famous. The film was also the first feature-length film directed by Spielberg for which John Williams did not compose the music. The film stars Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Rae Dawn Chong, Willard Pugh, and Adolph Caesar in one of his final film roles.[2][3]

The Color Purple
Theatrical release poster by John Alvin
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced by
Screenplay byMenno Meyjes
Based onThe Color Purple
by Alice Walker
Music byQuincy Jones
CinematographyAllen Daviau
Edited byMichael Kahn
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 18, 1985 (1985-12-18)
Running time
153 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million
Box office$142 million

Filmed in Anson and Union counties in North Carolina,[4] the film tells the story of a young African American girl named Celie Harris and shows the problems African American women faced during the early 20th century, including domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, poverty, racism, and sexism. Celie is transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of two strong female companions.[5]

The film was a box office success, raising $142 million from a budget of $15 million. The film received positive reviews from critics, receiving praise for its acting, direction, screenplay, score, and production merits; but it was also criticized by some critics for being "over-sentimental" and "stereotypical." The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, without winning any; it also received four Golden Globe Award nominations, with Whoopi Goldberg winning Best Actress in a Drama. Steven Spielberg didn't receive an Academy Award nomination for his directing, but did receive a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and a Golden Globe nomination. The film was later included in Roger Ebert's book series The Great Movies.


In 1909, Celie is an African-American teenager in rural Georgia who has had two children by her abusive father, both of whom have been taken from her. Her father then gives her away as a wife to widower Albert "Mister" Johnson, who already has three children and who also abuses Celie. Celie's younger sister, Nettie, the only person who loves her, runs away from home when their father starts abusing her and seeks shelter at Celie and Mister's home. The sisters promise to write each other should they ever be separated. Nettie teaches Celie to read and the two are happy together until Mister tries to rape Nettie while on her way to school. She successfully fights him off and is forcibly removed by him from the property.

Seven years later, Celie is now a meek adult who has avoided standing up to Mister's continued abuse. His eldest son, Harpo, marries his pregnant girlfriend, Sofia, a strong-willed, boisterous woman, and Celie is shocked to find her running a matriarchal household. On Mister's advice, Harpo attempts to overpower and strike Sofia in an attempt to better control her. After he fails, he asks Celie what to do. Confronted with her own inability to stand up to abuse, she also advises Harpo to start beating Sofia. Sofia forcefully retaliates and confronts Celie about what she told Harpo. She also reveals she has had to fight off abuse from all the men in her family. She threatens to kill Harpo if he beats her again and tells Celie to do likewise to Mister. After Harpo doesn't change his ways, Sofia leaves him, taking their children with her.

Mister and Harpo bring home Shug Avery, a showgirl and the former's long-time mistress, as she suffers from an unknown illness. Celie, who has slowly developed a fondness for Shug through a photograph sent to Mister, is in awe of Shug's strong will and ability to stand up to Mister. She nurses Shug back to health over the next six years, and Shug in turn takes a liking to her, writing and performing a song about her at Harpo's newly opened bar. That night, Shug tells Celie she's moving to Memphis, and Celie confesses to Shug that Mister beats her when Shug isn't there for not being her. Shug tells Celie she's beautiful and that she loves her, and the two women kiss. Celie decides to follow Shug to Memphis, but gets caught by Mister while she's frantically packing her things.

Meanwhile, Sofia has been imprisoned for striking the town's mayor after he assaults her. Years pass, and she, now a shell of her former self, is released from prison  only to be immediately ordered by the judge to become a maid to the mayor's wife, Ms. Millie. Having not seen her children in eight years, Sofia is allotted Christmas to be with her family, and Ms. Millie tries to drive her but panics and turns around after encountering a group of Sofia's friends, who were only trying to help her.

Shug returns to Celie and Mister's home with her new husband, Grady, expecting to receive a recording contract. Shug gives Celie a letter from Nettie, who tells her that she's working for a couple that has adopted Celie's children. Celie and Shug realize that Mister has been hiding Nettie's letters from Celie; while he and Grady are out drinking, the two search the house and find a hidden compartment under the floor boards filled with dozens and dozens of Nettie's letters. Engrossed in reading, Celie does not hear Mister's calls to shave him and he beats her. Celie attempts to kill Mister with a straight razor, but Shug intervenes and stops her. At a family gathering, Celie finally speaks up against Mister to the delight of Shug and Sofia, who finds her old fighting spirit, which prompts Harpo's new wife, Squeak, to stand up for herself as well. Shug and Grady drive away, taking Celie and Squeak with them.

Years later, Celie owns and operates a tailor shop. Mister is old, a drunk, and alone, and Harpo has made amends with Sofia; the two now run the bar together, and Shug still performs there. Celie's father passes away, and she finally learns from Nettie's letters that he wasn't their biological father and that when their mother passed, "his" property was legally inherited by Celie and Nettie. Mister receives a letter from Nettie addressed to Celie, takes money from his secret stash, and arranges for Nettie, her husband, and Celie's children to return to the U.S., where they finally reunite while Mister watches from a distance.



The film premiered on December 20, 1985, and went on general release on February 7, 1986.[6] The Color Purple was shown at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival as a non-competing title.[7]


Box office

The Color Purple was a success at the box office, staying in U.S. theaters for 21 weeks,[6] and grossing over $142 million worldwide.[8] In terms of box office income, it ranked as the #1 rated PG-13 film released in 1985, and #4 overall.[6]

Critical response

The film received positive reviews from critics, receiving praise for its acting, direction, screenplay, score, and production merits, but was criticized by some for being "over-sentimental" and "stereotypical". Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 80% based on reviews from 30 critics, with an average score of 6.89/10. The website's critical consensus states: "A sentimental tale that reveals great emotional truths in American history."[10] On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 78 out of 100, based on seven critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[11]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film four stars, calling it "the year's best film." He also praised Whoopi Goldberg, calling her role "one of the most amazing debut performances in movie history" and predicting she would win the Academy Award for Best Actress. (She was nominated but did not win.) Ebert wrote of The Color Purple:

The world of Celie and the others is created so forcibly in this movie that their corner of the South becomes one of those movie places  like Oz, like Tara, like Casablanca  that lay claim to their own geography in our imaginations. The affirmation at the end of the film is so joyous that this is one of the few movies in a long time that inspires tears of happiness, and earns them.[12]

Ebert's long-time television collaborator, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, praised the film as "triumphantly emotional and brave", calling it Spielberg's "successful attempt to enlarge his reputation as a director of youthful entertainments." Siskel wrote that The Color Purple was "a plea for respect for black women." Although acknowledging that the film was a period drama, he praised its "... incredibly strong stand against the way black men treat black women. Cruel is too kind a word to describe their behavior. The principal black men in The Color Purple use their women  both wives and daughters  as sexual chattel."[13]

New York Times film critic Janet Maslin noted the film's divergence from Walker's book, but made the case that this shift works:

Mr. Spielberg has looked on the sunny side of Miss Walker's novel, fashioning a grand, multi-hanky entertainment that is as pretty and lavish as the book is plain. If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland. ... Some parts of it are rapturous and stirring, others hugely improbable, and the film moves unpredictably from one mode to another. From another director, this might be fatally confusing, but Mr. Spielberg's showmanship is still with him. Although the combination of his sensibilities and Miss Walker's amounts to a colossal mismatch, Mr. Spielberg's Color Purple manages to have momentum, warmth and staying power all the same.[14]

Variety found the film over-sentimental, writing, "there are some great scenes and great performances in The Color Purple, but it is not a great film. Steven Spielberg's turn at 'serious' film-making is marred in more than one place by overblown production that threatens to drown in its own emotions."[15]

In addition, some critics alleged that the movie stereotyped black people in general[16] and black men in particular,[17] pointing to the fact that Spielberg, who is white, had directed a predominantly African American story.[18]

About some criticism the movie received, Steven Spielberg: "Most of the criticism came from directors [who] felt that we had overlooked them, and that it should have been a black director telling a black story. That was the main criticism. The other criticism was that I had softened the book. I have always copped to that. I made the movie I wanted to make from Alice Walker's book. There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were finely detailed in Alice's book, that I didn't feel could get a [PG-13] rating. And 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 basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that."[19]

Filmmaker Oliver Stone defended The Color Purple as "an excellent movie, and it was an attempt to deal with an issue that had been overlooked, and it wouldn't have been done if it hadn't been Spielberg. And it's not like everyone says, that he ruined the book. That's horseshit. Nobody was going to do the book. He made the book live again."[20]

In 2004, Ebert included The Color Purple in his list of "Great Movies". He stated that "I can see its flaws more easily than when I named it the best film of 1985, but I can also understand why it moved me so deeply, and why the greatness of some films depends not on their perfection or logic, but on their heart."[21]


The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg and Best Supporting Actress for both Avery and Winfrey.[22] It failed to win any of them, tying the record set by 1977's The Turning Point for the most Oscar nominations without a single win.[17] The film was also nominated for four Golden Globe Awards at the 43rd Golden Globe Awards, with Whoopi Goldberg winning Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.[23]

Meyjes was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 40th awards ceremony and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 38th awards ceremony.

Spielberg received his first Directors Guild of America Award at the 38th awards ceremony for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. He became the first director to win the award without even being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.

The Color Purple at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient Outcome
Academy Awards March 24, 1986 Best Picture Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Quincy Jones Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Whoopi Goldberg
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Margaret Avery
Oprah Winfrey
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Menno Meyjes
Best Cinematography Allen Daviau
Best Art Direction – Set Decoration J. Michael Riva, Bo Welch and Linda DeScenna
Best Costume Design Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Best Makeup Ken Chase
Best Music, Original Score Chris Boardman, Jorge Calandrelli, Andraé Crouch, Jack Hayes, Jerry Hey, Quincy Jones, Randy Kerber, Jeremy Lubbock, Joel Rosenbaum, Caiphus Semenya, Fred Steiner and Rod Temperton
Best Music, Original Song Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton and Lionel Richie
For the song "Miss Celie's Blues"
Golden Globe Awards January 24, 1986 Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Whoopi Goldberg Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Oprah Winfrey Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Steven Spielberg
Best Original Score – Motion Picture Quincy Jones

See also


  1. "THE COLOR PURPLE (15)". British Board of Film Classification. April 10, 1986. Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  2. STEWART, ROBERT W. (March 7, 1986). "Adolph Caesar : Fatal Heart Attack Fells Actor on Set". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  3. "Adolph Caesar Dead of a Heart Attack at Age 52". AP NEWS. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  4. "The Color Purple filming locations". The 80s Movie Rewind. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  5. Corliss, Richard (December 23, 1985). "Cinema: The Three Faces of Steve the Color Purple". Time. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  6. "The Color Purple". Box Office Mojo. Accessed Dec. 9, 2011.
  7. "Festival de Cannes: The". Retrieved July 18, 2009.
  8. Matthews, Jack (December 25, 1985). "A Strong Start for 'Color Purple' in Christmas Box Office Race". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  9. "Alice Walker". Desert Island Discs. May 19, 2013. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved January 18, 2014.
  10. "The Color Purple (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  11. "The Color Purple Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  12. Ebert, Roger (December 20, 1985). "The Color Purple". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  13. Siskel, Gene (December 20, 1985). "Color Purple: Powerful, Daring, Sweetly Uplifting". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  14. Maslin, Janet (December 18, 1985). "Film: 'The Color Purple,' from Steven Spielberg". New York Times. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  15. "The Color Purple". Variety. December 31, 1984. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  16. Clegg II, Legrand H.(Chairman, Coalition Against Black Exploitation, Compton) (February 16, 1986). "Bad Black Roles In 'Purple'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 30, 2010.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. Friendly, David T. (March 27, 1986). "Academy Hits Racism Accusation". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  18. Matthews, Jack (January 31, 1986). "3 'Color Purple' Actresses Talk About Its Impact". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  20. Cooper, Marc. Oliver Stone interview from Playboy Magazine (1988), in Stone, Oliver and Silet, Charles L.P., editors. Oliver Stone—Interviews, University Press of Mississippi (2006), p. 87.
  21. Ebert, Roger (March 28, 2015). "The Color Purple Movie Review (1985)". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  22. "'Out of Africa' Ties as Oscar Nominees: 11 Citations; Spielberg Not Named". The Los Angeles Times. February 5, 1986. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  23. "Winners & Nominees 1986 Golden Globes". Retrieved September 16, 2018.
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