This past Saturday Alice Walker turned 69 years old. The legendary queer author won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award 30 years ago for The Color Purple, her novel about race, gender and sexuality in the post-Civil War South. Three years later, the film adaptation was released with Whoopi Goldberg starring as Celie Harris, a shy but eager-to-learn woman who was raped by her father and forced to give away her children before being given to an abusive husband and being separated from her best friend and sister, Nettie.
The film touched on Celie’s love for the exciting transient performer Shug, but infamously de-gayed their relationship. Director Stephan Spielberg has since admitted to it, telling Entertainment Weekly:
There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were very finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel we 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. That kiss is consistent with the tonality, from beginning to end, of The Color Purple that I adapted.”
In the film, Celie is certainly taken with Shug (Margaret Avery) and they share a bond as well as a few kisses, but, much like the movie version of Fried Green Tomatoes, much of the women’s relationship is implied but otherwise invisible. If you’re looking for it, it’s there, but only to the trained eye of lesbians.
The Color Purple is surely worth reading, but also worth seeing because of strong performances by Goldberg, Avery and castmates Oprah Winfery and Danny Glover, as well as the social commentary Walker spurned with familial relationships, inter-racial power struggles and domestic and sexual violence. Alice Walker has continued to write about these topics and engage readers in discussions on them throughout her career. After you’ve seen The Color Purple, or re-watched it for Black History Month, check out the trailer for the upcoming documentary about Waters’ life, which premieres in April in the UK.
As she says in the trailer, people have had issues with her disinterest in submission, her intellect and her choice of lovers. She’s one of the most controversial writers and activists even within her own communities, those she seeks to serve. It’s incredible The Color Purple was published, and more incredible it became the successful film that came to include a lesbian kiss at all (Fried Green Tomatoes didn’t even get so much as a peck on the lips.) And the fact that it was two black women was even more controversial. But that’s how Alice likes it, and that’s the truth she was telling, about herself and other people she knows.
Find out more about Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth at alicewalkerfilm.com.