Ever Since I started Writing this blog way back in 2013 I’ve been trying to find a way to write about The Color Purple.
Here was a story that changed the way I looked at so many things. I read the book whilst doing my A-levels and first watched the film as soon as could afterwards. I re-wound the tape immediately and watched it again ( yep, I’m that old).
Here was one of the first times I’d encountered people who thought about some aspects of life the same way I did. It was a “you are not alone” story. Simultaneously here was one of the first times I encountered people who were very different from me, with wildy different experiences and outlooks – the life of a middle class girl in North West England at the end of the twentieth century is very different from that of a black woman in the American south at the beginning of that same century. And that’s really where my “you are not alone” feeling came from. It was because these women were so different, but still had a sense of Pride in themselves, a sense of the injustice at how they were treated, a sense of injustice at how others were treated that I felt such kinship with them. That they too loved; were heartbroken; valued friendship, loyalty and music; sought community; needed forgiveness and reconciliation; that all these things were true of people who were other than me fuelled my empathy and encouraged my still developing ideals and principles.
Now that I understand what the word means I realise I’d been a feminist for as long as I remember. Yet I didn’t really know why until I encountered this story. I had always had a strong sense of justice, yet didn’t thatreally feel it until I saw Sophia beaten and cowed, until I endured Celie and Nettie’s separation, until I breathed in the casual nature of Albert’s entitlement, violence and control.
I had always found forgiveness easy (but hey, I’m no angel, other things come less easy) and had never encountered such shunning as happens between Shug and her father in the film version. I have since been subject to it – and boy it’s one of the most painful things I have had to deal with, leading to yet another layer of connection with the story – maybe one day I will also experience a reconciliation event like that of Shug, I still hope. And let me tell you, that painful scene where she tells him she is married now and reaches out to him and he utterly ignores her presence – what a perfect example of what “unlove” is; what a perfect example of what an enemy of God looks like (big clue, it’s NOT the “immoral” jukejoint singer!); what a perfect example of the blindness of religiosity, the myopia of self-protection and the ungodliness of indifference, shunning and ignoring another person. And then in contrast the beautiful moment, the exact perfection of reconciliation – revealing the true heart of God. One of my most favourite moments in movies – right there 😀
As with most of the stories I love – as you will have seen if you’ve caught any of my previous posts – Friendship is the engine that drives this story. And it’s the way that those friendships work and thrive that also spoke to me when I first encountered the story – both on the page and in film. For I had been implicitly shown that passionate friendships weren’t the norm, that the true aim of life should be to seek all your relational and community needs in a romantic relationship with a man and to have children. Then you would be a family and that’s your community sorted. But I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that, I didn’t feel like that and it didn’t seem to me that that was what God really intended for us. Because I deeply loved my friends; I loved them on different levels, each friendship serving a different purpose and holding different meaning – but I knew deep inside that community and family was so much more than man and wife and 2.4 kids and a dog. And then, I read this book, watched the film and knew I wasn’t weird; I knew I was not alone. Here was a “family” who had built themselves on affection, devotion, love. Here were friends who loved as deeply as lovers but were beyond romance – and in the book Celie and Shug’s relationship as actual lovers is stated much more explicitly than in the film – the film leaves it much more ambiguous, even shies away from it. But whether physically intimate or not, they choose each other, they choose love, over staying in the dark recesses of Albert’s control.
And as for Celie and Nettie – yes they are sisters, but they are friends first and their friendship love is one that is not limited to sisters and one that is, for me, the purest kind of love. It is unconditional, it is passionate, it is devoted and faithful. Nettie continues to write despite never hearing back from Celie (thanks to Mister’s cruelty in squirreling away Nettie’s letters). In the book, their separation is almost nonchalant, discussed in whispers and with an air of inevitability over Albert’s pursuit of the younger sister. Here for me is where the film is an improvement – because although their separation scene is harrowing (I sob every time), for me it more truthfully shows how being separated from someone you truly love would be – and truthful in that that kind of passion is not limited to “romantic lovers”.
It would be a “nice enough” story if Nettie remained in Africa, but it’s their reunion, amongst Celie’s constructed family, amongst the people she has built into a community and because of Albert’s eventual moment of humanity, that brings the story to fruition. It’s the restoration of Hope, the triumph of love and the fulfillment of the Oath Nettie makes – “Nothing but death will keep me from it”. Not misogyny nor cruelty nor segregation can kill what Nettie feels for her sister and vice versa. If we still made Oaths of friendship (and recently I’ve been wondering why we don’t any more), that’s the kind of oath I would make. My friends, nothing but death would keep me from it.