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The enduring legacy of ‘The Color Purple’

By Chandelis Duster and Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

(CNN) — Roslyn Brock wants every generation of her family to see the musical remake of “The Color Purple.”

So, she is renting out a theater in Dothan, Alabama, on Christmas Day for 165 of her relatives to watch the film together. Everyone, she said, has been asked to wear purple.

“It’s just a great opportunity for us to introduce this cultural classic to a new generation and then to reintroduce it in a different way to those who have seen it before,” Brock said.

As moviegoers across the country flock to theaters this holiday weekend, many Black Americans are hoping to reconnect with a story that has become a cultural touchstone in the Black community.

In the four decades since author Alice Walker published “The Color Purple,” the novel has been adapted into a film, a Broadway show and now a movie musical. But fans and academics tell CNN it’s the story’s themes of sisterhood, women’s empowerment and overcoming abuse and hardship that continue to resonate across the decades.

Brock, who serves as chairman emeritus for the NAACP, said she wants her loved ones — both young and old — to engage with the film’s themes and talk about it. She said she feels the story also continues to draw new audiences because it speaks to the strength of Black women.

“Black women have really been the ones who have stood up on behalf of our communities, who kept us together, who prayed us through and who have been the bridge that has allowed Black families to continue to survive,” Brock said.

“We celebrate our men. We should always be supportive of them, but it’s Black women who have been at the bottom of the totem pole and still we rise.”

The richness of Black womanhood

Alice Walker published “The Color Purple” in 1982. The novel tells the story of Celie, a young Black woman growing up in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, through her poignant letters to God. Celie and many of the women in the novel suffer decades of abuse from men in their lives, but they ultimately find strength and empowerment in the bonds of sisterhood, friendship and family.

“The Color Purple” has been equally praised and criticized for its raw portrayal of domestic abuse, sexual violence and queer Black relationships.

Salamishah Tillet, author of the book “In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece,” told CNN the novel presents Black women as complex and nuanced and celebrates relationships that are deep and intense.

“A lot of Black women can find some parts of themselves to cheer for, to identify with, to fall in love with, to hope for. We see parts of ourselves or see our mothers, our grandmothers, our sisters, our daughters in these characters,” she said.

“Because (Walker) was able to see the richness of Black womanhood in the lives of these characters, we can see our breadth, our potential, our pain, our hope, as well.”

In 1983, Walker became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for the novel. “The Color Purple” also won the National Book Award in the same category that year.

Director Steven Spielberg adapted the novel into a film of the same name in 1985, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. The film received 11 Academy Award nominations but did not take home any awards.

The film was also widely criticized at the time by some Black Americans for perpetuating harmful stereotypes such as Black men are violent towards women.

There was also thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ criticism of the portrayal of Shug Avery and Celie’s relationship, which was seen by some as “undermining the unity of the Black family,” Tillet added.

Alice Randall, author and writer in residence for African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, told CNN despite the criticism of the film and novel, the story’s message is one of resilience as a form of resistance. 

“Celie endures so many hard things from so many directions. Sometimes our enemies are in our own houses,” Randall said. “And still, we have to rise. And still, we deserve joy … still at our best we connect with love and beauty. Not pretending it is where it isn’t, but finding it where it is.”

The story, she said, is ultimately about finding yourself and balancing community with others.

“That dual address is central to the heart of the lives of so many Black women. That balance, serving community, engaging with community, but maintaining individual identity – but not at the price of broken connection,” she said.

A source of healing

For some, Walker’s novel wrote the experience of women and girls who have survived sexual and physical abuse into vivid distinction.

Tillet said she first read the novel when she was 15 and later turned to the book as a source of healing after she was sexually assaulted while in college.

“We have a character who kind of goes through the whole arc of experiencing trauma, finding her voice, redefining her sexuality and then becoming part of this community. And in that process, she also helps other people heal,” she said.

Celie’s story inspired Tillet to publicly write about the assault for her college newspaper. She later started a nonprofit with her sister called A Long Walk Home in 2003, which strives to use art to facilitate healing and to bring awareness to violence against girls and women. 

“The story of going from being a victim to a survivor really inspired the work we do as an organization,” she said.

Oprah Winfrey went from co-starring in the original film to producing the Color Purple musical remake in 2023. The film is a production of Warner Bros. Pictures, which, like CNN, is part of Warner Bros. Discovery.

Winfrey spoke of the lasting impact filming “The Color Purple” has had on her life at a recent town hall discussion with the film’s director, Blitz Bazawule, ahead of its release

“It became a foundation for how I operated everything in my life – do everything that you can then surrender it to God,” Winfrey said. “’The Color Purple’ became the foundation for that life lesson and that healing for me.”

Winfrey also thanked Black Americans and community leaders for supporting the film, which stars Halle Bailey, Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and others.

She became emotional while discussing the amount of support the film has received so far.

“To have us to come together as a community like this and to see the support and to see all these theaters that have already been bought out … we showed up in force and that we showed up with such grace and such power,” she said. “Everybody together is just a beautiful thing.”

Brock said she is looking forward to bringing four generations of her family – the youngest nine years old and oldest 95 – together for the screening of the film.

Her family members are traveling from all over the country to spend the holidays together and see the movie, she said. And she encourages others to see the film on opening day.

“I want each of my family members to watch the movie and get from it what resonates with them,” she said. “What they can pull from it, what they can glean from it as words of wisdom, gems that they can use.”

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