« The Color Purple » – Doudou Aichatou


Affiche du film “The Color Purple” (1984)

The existence of class, race and gender differences in American society has long been the focus of popular culture, whether in the form of books, films, music, or plays. In the movie The Color Purple, adapted from Alice Walker’s novel of 1982, these questions of race, gender and class are explicitly shown to be a means of perpetuating the unjust oppression of whites over blacks, or of men over women. The Color Purple is a 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg which tells the story of a young African American woman called Celie. It highlights the difficulties faced by African Americans, particularly black women who went through domestic violence, racism, sexism, incest, and poverty. The main concern of this work is to show how popular culture interact with questions of gender, race and class in the American context of the 1980s.



   Gender inequality was a central issue in America during the 1960s- 1980s. Let us recall the Civil Right movement of the 1960s which offered very little amount of respect and recognition for women. It was very difficult at this time for women to cope both in their family lives and within the workforce. It was generally expected for women to get married within their early 20s and start bearing children. Their basic responsibilities centred around taking care of the family, cooking and cleaning.

   Women were least or not found in strategic professional domains. They were even unwelcome as declared by a dean of an American medical school: “hell yes, we have quota… We do keep women out, when we can. We don’t want them here- and they don’t want them elsewhere, either, whether or not they’ll admit it.” Beside this inequality made on women in general, the situation was worsened for black women despite the fact that slavery was abolished during this period. It was particularly difficult for black women to gain their rights and privileges. This unfair situation which was considered normal in the 80s would actually be considered outright racist in present day culture. Nevertheless, most of these black women fought hard to see their situation changed and bettered not only for their sake but for the next generation of women, and particularly black women.


   In the movie The Color Purple, the hardship inflicted on the female race is explicitly shown. As early as the age of fourteen, Celie, the main character of the movie, has suffered repeated rapes and beatings by Alphonso, the man she thought to be her father. This wicked man ensures that Celie will keep her mouth shut and never reveal his evil acts by telling her “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

   In a scene when Celie opposes Albert, this man who had always abused and oppressed her cannot take the fact that a woman disgraces him in such away. He says to Celie: “you are black, you are poor, you are a woman, you are nothing at all”. This is a means of destabilising her and making her feel powerless and mean. Actually, the young woman who have found her voice and has a more stable personality, can no longer be shocked by his words. She rather dumbfounds and humbles Albert, causing him to reassess and change his own life.


   In another scene, Sofia laments about her conditions as a black woman in these words: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men, but I ain’t never thought I’d have to fight in my own house!… I loves Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.”[1] This quotation brings out the determination of Sofia to fight for her rights and freedom. She is not ready to let any one take advantage of her just because she is a woman.

   In the process of reaffirming herself and her fight for feminism, Celie comfortably sits in her rocking chair and watches Albert make breakfast himself. By doing this, she distorted the standard American organisation of the time which positioned women in the kitchen, cooking for their husbands and families.


   The black female characters in this movie come together and develop friendly relationships which make them more powerful and apt to resist oppression and dominance. This friendship among these women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a society full of male violence and dominance.

   A good example of this power gained from relationships between black women in the movie is Sofia’s assertion that her “ability to fight comes from her strong relationships with her sisters”. Moreover, Celie is able to overcome all her hardships because of the love and assistance she gets from women like Nettie, Sophia, and Shug Avery who procure her a sense of belonging to a community. Celie develops entrepreneurial ship and creates her own business which offers her more personal and financial freedom.


   In the early 1980s, Americans were hopeful that the era of strong racial tensions in American societies would soon end. However, it was soon realised that despite the improvements of the 70s, racial discrimination and problem persisted and grew at high points. The 1980s appeared to be a backward decade in which the progress made in the 1970s concerning racial discrimination was completely masked by hatred and racial segregation.

    Because she is a black woman, Sofia is not expected to address to the white people in a certain way since they consider themselves to be superior. Sofia, unlike most black women of the time, appears to be fiercely independent and determined. She refuses to submit neither to men, whites, nor any one who is willing to dominate her. She stands up to Miss Millie who is a staunch racist and condescending when the later asks her to be her maid. She proudly answers “hell no!”. Millie’s husband- the mayor, intervenes and hits Sofia who does not let herself be mistreated. She hits the mayor back and this eventually results in Sofia been sent to jail and later on forced to become Miss Millie’s maid after all. Sofia’s rebellion costs her twelve years of her life but she finally regains her freedom. This implies that she is not totally defeated even though she pays a high price for her words.


   Social class is a controversial issue in the United States of America, having varied definitions, models, and even disagreements over its very existence[2]. In most definitions of class, people are grouped according to wealth, education, occupation, or even membership to a given social network. Most of the social classes entirely ignored the existence of parallel minority societies like the black society.

   In the movie The Color Purple, the black community have only a few career paths accessible to them. Most of the men’s occupations is farming while the women are housewives, or more exceptionally singers as Squeak and Shug Avery. Such occupations eventually place this black community at the lowest level of class hierarchy. In the other hand, important professions like Mayor are occupied by the whites.



   The lives of African Americans have greatly been affected by gender, race and class discriminations in America as we see in this movie. We understand from watching The Color Purple that, just as blacks as a group are relegated to an underclass by virtue of their race, women are relegated to a separate caste by virtue of their sex. It is the story of the growth and development of a black woman who was initially a submissive, ignorant, abused young girl who have learned to stand up for herself and cope with sexism and hostility.

   Despite the difficulty of the situation, the characters in The Color Purple seize the opportunity to assert selfhood and resist oppression.


Doudou Aichatou (Master 1 Anglais)




[1] Shmoop Editorial Team, “The Color Purple Violence Quotes Page 3,” Shmoop University, Inc., Last modified November 11, 2008, https://www.shmoop.com/color-purple/violence-quotes-3.html.

[2] Eichar, Douglas (1989). Occupation and Class Consciousness in America. Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-26111-3.

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