On December 18, 1985, “The Color Purple” was released in theaters. Based on the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning 1982 novel by Alice Walker, the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Whoopi Goldberg) and Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey). The film grossed $142 million worldwide and played for 21 weeks in U.S. theaters. Despite the devastating challenges that the female characters face, their story is ultimately one about the triumph of the human spirit and a celebration of the powerful sisterhood that black women share.
“The Color Purple” tells the story of an uneducated black woman’s plight to find love and self-worth in a violent, racist and misogynistic world. Set in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, Celie Harris (Goldberg) endures an unimaginable amount of degradations as a child. She is a victim of incest, rape and racism. At 14, Celie is forced to marry an older widowed man looking for a woman to take care of his home and children. She marries him to save her younger sister from his unwanted advances.
Celie’s new husband emotionally and physically abuses her. As a way to continuously keep her in an inferior position, he only lets her call him “Mister.” However, through the years, Celie is inspired by the strength of the women in her life, including her stepson’s wife Sofia (Winfrey) and her husband’s mistress, glamorous jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Eventually, she finds a way to escape her horrific life under Mister’s rule, and triumphs in spite of a lifetime of degradation and abuse.
Both Goldberg and Winfrey had their hearts set on landing roles in “The Color Purple.” After Goldberg heard Alice Walker read the book on the radio, she wrote the author a letter telling her that if there was ever a film adaptation, she would play “dirt on the floor” just to be in the movie. Winfrey also coveted landing a part in the film. She shared in a 2017 interview with Variety, “I always wanted to be an actress. I never wanted anything in my life more than I wanted to be in ‘The Color Purple’… And have never allowed myself to want anything as much again.” Their passion for the project fueled their riveting performances in the film.
The 1985 film exposed audiences to the hardships that American black women faced during the early twentieth century. “The Color Purple” gave voice to this once-invisible population in the American story, amplifying their pain, as well as celebrating their survival tactics. Thirty-two years since the film’s release, women across the globe still face abuse and disrespect. However, “The Color Purple” (as a book and film) has been instrumental in starting an ongoing dialogue about the devastating effects of institutionalized racism and the patriarchy on disenfranchised women.