Photo credit: 'The Color Purple,' Warner Bros. Pictures.
How 'The Color Purple' Evolved Past Black Trauma
The 2023 box office hit, ‘The Color Purple,’ has amassed rave reviews for its touching performances, but how has it grown for new audiences in the age of pushback against exploiting Black trauma for entertainment?
Alice Walker’s award-winning novel, The Color Purple, has been at the forefront of conversations about Black trauma since its initial release in 1982. The story, about a young Black girl living in rural Georgia in the late 1900s who writes letters to God about her traumatic life, teaches us lessons about struggle, abuse, depression, and the journey to faith that comes from these hardships.
Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation of the novel brought audiences across the world to tears because of the intense pain of the characters on screen. The film showcased the unbelievable talents of its actors and actresses who carried out the horrific scenes portrayed in the novel.
Years later, The Color Purple was brought to the stage and this time, in an unexpected format. With the guidance of producers, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker’s classic novel was transformed into a Broadway musical, which was an absolute success for everyone involved as well as for those who got to see it.
2023 was a great year for film and served another version of The Color Purple. The movie musical hit theaters on Christmas Day and audiences all over were excited to see a star-studded cast take on the story of the classic novel intertwined with the captivating musical of the Broadway production. However, before the film’s release, many people expressed valid concern for yet another display of Black trauma on the silver screen. When Walker penned her novel, she produced it with the memories of her own experiences in mind, not necessarily coming from a place of rehashing Black trauma. While there seems to be an oversaturation of Black trauma in current film and television, The Color Purple’s adaptation journey shows how classic stories can evolve with modern tolerances for today’s audiences.
When Alice Walker penned her critically acclaimed novel, she couldn’t have foreseen the impact that it would have on today’s media. The adaptations of her novel have helped catapult the careers of countless actors and singers alike through their portrayal of her words and experiences. The writing contained in the novel is written in epistolary form — letters addressed to God written by the main character, Celie. The letters recount the extreme highs and lows of Celie’s life, not only recalling her abuse, but the abuse of others in great detail. Celie’s narration is the most poignant element of the novel because it forces the reader to experience life with her. With themes of systemic racism, sexual abuse, and intense descriptions of violence weaved into the story, it was met with waves of criticism and censorship efforts upon its release. While the novel itself is considered by many to lean excessively into Black trauma, it includes stories that must be told. By dismissing the accounts of those who endure these experiences, they too are being censored. Although the novel’s content was explicit, it helped to start the conversation for people who underwent similar hardships.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple is what initially comes to mind when the title is mentioned. The film kickstarted the careers of several actors, most notable being Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover. However, the most well-known parts of the film are the ones that depict intense scenes of abuse and its lasting effects. Most striking being Sofia’s monologue, performed by Oprah Winfrey and starting with the well-known line, “All my life I had to fight.” The speech tells of Sofia’s battles with domestic and sexual assault and even briefly sheds light on Celie's experience with the same.
The Color Purple | "Fight My Whole Life" Clip | Warner Bros. Entertainmentwww.youtube.com
The scene where Sofia hits the mayor is another prominent scene, but the physical harm that Sofia suffers after this incident is painful for many to watch. The visual displays of abuse, violence, and systemic racism are perhaps the most outstanding examples of Black trauma in the film, making it a movie that many people feel is hard to revisit.
The original Broadway musical, The Color Purple, took the stage in December 2005, garnering widespread praise from critics and viewers alike. The original songs added an unexpected uplifting touch to the otherwise heartbreaking story. While the same themes of Black trauma are alive and well in the musical, they aren’t the main focal point. The music throughout the show allows for distractions and a way to channel positive energy into the performances. There is no question that music helps to alleviate tense situations, and the songs in the musical do exactly that. Celie’s struggles are now accompanied by upbeat melodies of gospel-esque music to invoke feelings of hope and joy. The song “Miss Celie’s Pants” is an upbeat tune that serves as a look at what Celie has accomplished after leaving her husband. The lyrics, “that man might have done you wrong…look who’s wearing the pants now,” help to tie together the struggles of her character into a place where she is able to look back and reflect. There is no disputing that the musical was able to make the story more palatable for some audiences, but with such a limited amount of space for storytelling, many things were bound to be omitted. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the most recent adaptation, and more specifically, how it deals with Black trauma.
The 2023 retelling of The Color Purple brought audiences to tears with its moving performances and gracious homage to its predecessors. The film has the same depth as the original movie and is intertwined with the stylings of the hit musical. While many were wary about traumatic scenery in this new rendition, the film does not zero in on these hard-to-watch scenes like the original. The audience isn’t exposed to any gruesome depictions of abuse, but instead, they are insinuated. Additionally, the songs are a big help in supporting the uplifting feel that The Color Purple hopes to present. Fan favorites like Danielle Brooks’ “Hell No!” and Fantasia’s “I’m Here” are performed with such emotion that the watching experience feels more inspiring than sad.
To truly understand the creative process at work when retelling such an intricate tale, we reached out to Ricky Dillard, acclaimed gospel artist and the gospel coordinator for the recent film. “Gospel music has its own sound, its own chord structures, its own vibe, its own feel," Dillard said. "The spirit of it lifts you, shifts you, changes your mindset, and places you in a better space because of the message and its sound.”
This idea is truly evident in the movie musical, seeing as audiences everywhere are left feeling more empowered than ever before by this retelling of the classic tale. While it can be difficult to tell this story while acknowledging its triggering elements, Dillard shared an interesting approach to how he used music to evoke positive emotions when the film needed them the most. “I approach arranging music to accompany traumatic and emotionally difficult scenes by knowing the temperature, tone and message of the scene. Once I know the temperature, tone and message of the scene, I then use musical chords and lyrics that best describe the spirit of the trauma and the emotional difficulty the scene will convey. Then we will want to know that a picture is clearly painted for that scene.”
By intertwining the heart-wrenching details of the novel and original film with the glorious melodies of the Broadway musical, this new rendition of The Color Purple creates a safe space that allows older and newer audiences to connect in a special way.
“I feel that music adds to this new remake of The Color Purple: new life, a rebirthing, a retelling," Dillard said. "It has brought back to the center of our hearts and minds the many, many difficulties that women go through and through them, singing these songs and allowing these messages to get into the hearts of the viewers. It is life-changing.”
To hear more of Ricky Dillard and his powerful impact on the gospel scene, be sure to keep an eye out for his newest LP, Choirmaster II, available on January 26th.
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