The Unicorn Scale: The Color Purple

By Jennie Roberson

March 04, 2018



Photo credit: Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

Hello there, bi movie buffs! So what goes into making a bi movie that tempts the Academy to give them an eight-pound man made of gold? Let's find out... *looks off hopefully, tear-strewn to the sunset as the music swells* together.

Today, I'm going to take a look at a modern classic: The Color Purple. Based on (#Bi2) author Alice Walker's novel of the same name, this film garnered a total of 11 — count 'em, 11 — Academy nominations without winning a single one. That ties for the largest amount of noms-without-wins in Oscar history, even though it was successful enough to adapt into a Broadway musical.

Warning: Here be SPOILERS for the film's plot. Oh, and if you need a refresher as to what the Unicorn Scale is all about, you can take a look at this.

The Color Purple focuses on the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a shy black woman living in rural Georgia during the early part of the 20th century. Celie gets a horrific start to her life — bearing children to her alleged father, getting married off to the cruel, monstrous Mister (Danny Glover) who separates her from the only person in her life who loves her, her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia).

But this story isn't about her tragedy, but rather her endurance leading to personal triumph. That evolution is catalyzed by Mister's long-time mistress, blues singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). While Shug rejects her at first out of jealousy for her relationship with Mister, she quickly learns to see the shy beauty of Celie's soul and manages to coax her out of her shell — even if it's just enough to get her to give a full smile. And then some.

This scene is a turning point for Celie in more ways than one. There's the obvious — a same-sex attraction that she has never felt before, tenderness, and safety enough to smile, which she has been told all her life is ugly. But not only that, she kisses Shug back — she goes for something in her life other than what she needs to survive or endure. Her rebirth starts at this moment and drives the rest of the story to an uplifting, tearful close.

What I Liked:

I'm all about the complex portrayals of women of color we get to see in this tale. Celie, Shug, and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) are fully realized characters with flaws, dreams, and strengths. This is still far too rare to see in modern American cinema. I also loved that this is a story about black women that doesn't occur either before/during the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. 

Don't get me wrong — those are both crucial times in American history, but it's wonderful to watch the lives of people of color in a way that doesn't focus squarely on the color of their skin. That's not to say racism doesn't have its part in this story (because America), but for the most part, it takes a backseat, along with most of the white, bit players.

I'm also grateful that Spielberg and his team didn't erase Celie's sexual awakening as a conduit for change. It was wonderful to see a love scene done with great tenderness between two women in a mainstream film — especially one made in the '80s and its political climate towards the LGBT community.

What I Didn't Like:

Anyone who has read my reviews probably knows what I'm gonna say at this point: just use the word "bisexual." I wouldn't argue the usage of the term for Celie (she doesn't express any attraction towards men — understandable considering how they have treated her). But they have set up Shug as this bi, free woman to only reduce what (in the novel) is a great sexual desire to a simple, chaste kiss.

Celie and Shug standing close to eachother. Celie is smiling and both are wearing dresses.
Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

I wouldn't say that this does a total disservice to the narrative, but it's a giant part of Celie's transformation explicitly detailed in the novel. (I still sometimes think of my clitoris as a "magic button" — thanks for that, Alice Walker.) To not explore that part of Celie's awakening dilutes the power of her growth.

To wit, Spielberg, in a 2011 interview, discussed watering down the scene between Shug and Celie. "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." He says he wouldn't change it, though, because the kiss was consistent with the tone of the film.

C'mon, Stevie, baby. You were willing to show any and all abuse in the narrative, and you still managed to get that PG-13 rating. At that point, you had created a whole host of films that worked across all age demographics. I think you could have gotten away with a little fondling or silhouette play.

Silhouette of Celie and Shug talking while the sun is setting in a field.
Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

Which your cinematographer was all about:

Silouhette of Celie reading a book.
Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

So, yeah. I call bull. Maybe the musical picked up the slack. Someone report back to me on that.

The Rating:

I'll keep this short since this flick has a long-running time: See it. Seminal film. Great characters. But pulls its punches on being bi. See it anyway (and have some tissues ready).

Three Unicorn emojis