The Unicorn Scale: The Color Purple (2023)

By Jennie Roberson

April 26, 2024



Well hello there, new and returning Unicorns! I hope everyone’s happy and healthy and has done their stretches today.

How do you feel about movie sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations? Many people, especially outside of Los Angeles, gripe that all Hollywood produces are these, often declaring them terrible and yearning for something original. Having worked in L.A.'s filmmaking scene for almost twenty years, I can shed light on a few points:

Hollywood won't invest in reboots unless they anticipate an audience. So, if you don't want them, avoid films like Fast and Furious 25 or another Saw reboot.

Remakes have been part of cinema since the beginning. Since the 1910s, each generation has reinterpreted classic tales like Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. So, it's a longstanding tradition.

Most importantly, remakes or adaptations are often made because someone has a new perspective to offer on the story.

Now why am I ranting about all of this? Well, because The Color Purple (adapted from the Pulitzer-winning novel by #Bi2 Alice Walker, and whose 1985 adaptation by Steven Spielberg we reviewed here) was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2005 and then revived in 2015. And last year, to much fanfare, the musical was made into a film adaptation.

I was excited to see this because, well, for one, I love a good musical. But more importantly, I was super curious to see if the musical and film had bumped up the bisexuality in Celie’s journey as seen in the original book but barely touched upon in the 1985 film. So what did I find? Read on, dear Unicorns, read on.

But before I get into all the dirty details, I should probably go over a few disclaimers here. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS for this 2023 musical film. Also, regarding content warnings, this movie starts with some tough scenes, so be aware of themes like (perceived) incest, abuse, attempted rape, and racism. Finally, if this is your first time checking out our scale, you may want to take a look at the metric in play here to know how we measure the bi representation on screen — it’s not as binary as a thumbs-up/thumbs-down kind of situation.

Ready? Ok, here we go:

The Color Purple follows the life story of Celie (Fantasia Barrino), a woman in rural Georgia in the early part of the 20th century. After experiencing pregnancies seemingly fathered by her father, Celie is sent to marry Mister (Colman Domingo, with Phylicia Pearl Mpasi playing the younger version) instead of her sister, and the only person who loves her, Nettie (Hailey Barry, with Ciara playing the older version). The story follows Celie’s life as Mister’s mistress, Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), comes into town, and Celie begins to gather inner strength, love, and a community of men and women who love her.

Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

What I Liked:

There’s definitely a lot more done to flesh out Shug’s bisexuality in this adaptation than in the 1985 take on the story. We clearly see Shug enjoying the attention of men during her numbers like “Push Da Button”, dancing and making out with Mister, and with a whole lot more physical touch and allusions to her attraction to Celie. But at first, I was concerned that Shug’s attraction to Celie was once again going to be sanitized almost past the point of recognition. From Shug talking about the strength of her hands scratching a song out of her head while Celie gets a bath, to a handful of fleeting physical touches and putting lipstick on her, it seemed for a long time we’d get little more out of the blues singer than some modest flirtation.

But then “What About Love?” comes along, and the romantic ballad and its subsequent scene certify the queer attraction between Shug and Celie. Staged as an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence, Celie dreams while the two have slipped away to catch a movie in an empty theatre. The song outlines their attraction to each other and ends with the two characters kissing in real life. And then the movie doubles down with the two of them waking up in bed next to each other in the next scene, clearly after a tempestuous night and not just some platonic sleepover! Better. Much better.

Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

What I Didn't Like:

And yet… I wanted more.

In this adaptation, much like my review of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), I would say that Celie has a different sexual orientation here than in the source material - more likely lesbian than bi. Even then, while Celie does work to keep her interior emotional life to herself when Shug leaves and comes back with a husband Grady (Jon Baptiste), we barely see any reaction from Celie! I don’t know about you, but if the person responsible for my queer sexual awakening left and then came back married and without warning, I would probably be pretty damn heart-stricken. Though the two clearly remain friends throughout the rest of the narrative, it still doesn’t go nearly as far as the book to underline the attraction that Shug and Celie have for each other.

Shug's bisexuality is evident across various media, yet I wished for more exploration in the film. The novel delves deeper, and apparently, the musical expands on their relationship, with Shug even seeking Celie's permission for one last affair, but all of this remains on the cutting room floor.

Considering that their sexual relationship is the beginning of Celie’s journey towards self-acceptance, it’s a shame to see just a dash more than the crumbs we got in the 1985 adaptation, but little more than that.

Image/Warner Bros. Pictures

The Rating:

It’s a fine film, and maybe I’m being greedy in wanting more for this take. After all, author Walker herself was glad to see a better sketching out of the queer love story. But I’m convinced that there was more that could be done. You certainly can’t walk away from seeing this film and still denying that Shug was bi or that her relationship with Celie was the source of her queer awakening, but it still leaves much to be desired.

Here’s to hoping the next adaptation will finally, without fear or irony, make that relationship the true foundation of Celie’s story that it is. Maybe it won’t be something new to say, but instead of lightly whispering that Shug and Celie’s relationship is bi, it will scream it with its whole chest.

3 unicorn emojis.