Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is the basis for the musical that won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical this month. Several years earlier the novel was adapted into one of Steven Spielberg’s best films (I would say it’s his second best behind only E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial). It tells the story of Celie (Whoopie Goldberg), a girl tossed around from one abusive situation to another, suffering from sexual abuse committed by her father and then married off to a man who treats her with contempt and continues the pattern of sexual abuse she grew up with.
Paced in such a way to show the important details of her childhood, we are given perspective of what existence looks life for Celie in adulthood. It is anything but life. She has been torn away from her sister, hindered from learning to read. Nothing in her world allows her to experience anything that looks life life. However, from the childhood scenes forward, we see Celie praying many times as she walks through the fields of her abuser (whether her father early in the movie or her husband later). Her prayers are honest and sad. The course of the movie shows the answers to her prayers. These are answers that she didn’t even have the capability to expect or hope for when she prayed because her view of the world and of God were so limited by the oppressive environment surrounding her. The movie sends the message vividly that God answers prayers in ways that are much bigger than the limitations of the person praying.
Celie’s story is a story of beautiful redemption. Everything that is stolen from her in childhood is restored. It is a long, painful process to that restoration, however. The movie is always honest enough to bring us into Celie’s world of deep pain so that we feel that pain with her, grieve with her, and heal with her before we are eventually allowed to experience joy with her. Never has a film concerning abuse been filled with so much hope and joy as The Color Purple without the artificial feeling that we are just being given an obligatory happy ending. The Color Purple has nothing artificial or obligatory about it. It takes us into a very dark existence that is ultimately redeemed by Christ. It shows that indeed, sorrow lasts for a night (and that such a “night” can be a very long period of time), but joy comes in the morning when God is given room, through faith and repentance, to change lives.
Most significant about the spirituality of The Color Purple is that Celie’s journey is never only hers. As she encounters God and receives healing, so do all the other people around her. She has no “me and God” mentality. She knows that she needs love, and as she receives God’s love, she learns to also be loved and to love the other people around her—even her abusers. Through her relationships, others see what God has done in her life, and an entire community is transformed by the power of faith, hope, and love. Although the film version was not a musical per se, the music is crucial to the story, and this transformation of a community is depicted entirely in song (see the clip here). The healing and prophetic potential of music (and the arts in general) is a subplot of this film that itself can have the impact of encourage emotional healing as we watch the characters experience that healing in such a powerful, spiritual way.
Stumble alert: Although the redemption and transformation I discuss is very real in the film, people who have been victims of sexual abuse should use discretion before watching this film, as the trauma reflected could have a negative impact on such viewers, potentially triggering traumatic flashbacks.
Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)