The Ultimate Penultimate in ‘The Color Purple’

The Thanksgiving scene in the movie version of The Color Purple was a fake out, like Luther Vandross’s false ending on A House is Not a Home. The music slows to a whimper, and Luther chants ever so softly. Then, he brings it on home.

Ella Fitzgerald does the same thing on How High the Moon. In 1966’s The Stockholm Concert with Duke Ellington, Ella performs some of her grittiest skats.

“I guess I better quit while I’m ahead,” Ella lightly croons after what sounds like improv- a dynamic jam session between a stage chock full of greats. Then, the beat drops to a snare and Ella digs in with a real nasty groove.

While the drum drones, Ella is growling and trilling, riffing and ranting like a trombone, two trumpets and a sax together. One can almost imagine her shoulders squeezing and releasing like a tense metronome as the snare races. It’s funkier than the Miles Davis Quintet, and Ella even does a great Miles!

Over Thanksgiving dinner:

Your boy!

Seem like if he hadn’t been your boy, he might have been a halfway decent man.

Say what? (Mister stumbles)

You took my sister Nettie away from me.

You knew she was the only somebody in the world who loved me.

But Nettie and my kids, they coming home soon.

And when we all get together, we gon’ sit around and whop your ass.

-Nettie, your kids? Woman, you talking crazy. (Mister tries to dismiss Celie)

Oh, I got children.

My children livin’ in Africa.

Africa! Learning different languages.

Fresh air, plenty exercise.

And they gon’ turn out a heap better than these fools you never tried to raise.

-Now, hold on, here! (Hapro flares up)

No “hold on,” Harpo.

If you hadn’t tried to rule over Sofia, white folks never wouldda got her.

-That’s a lie! {Harpo shouts indignantly)

-A little truth in it. (a female voice says nearly inaudibly off camera)

Y’all was rotten kids.

You was. Y’all was rotten kids!

Made my life here hell.

O’ course your daddy ain’t nothing but some dead horse shit”

(Sophia’s deep belly laugh)

-My God, the dead has arisen!

Like Celie, after announcing that’s she about to quit, Ella continues for a few minutes more, raising her register repeatedly, mimicking the jazz trumpet- hitting each note as hard as Louis Armstrong. It was the ultimate penultimate, just like Thanksgiving dinner. “Oh, Sophia home. Sophia home now,” Oprah says, then “thangs gon’ be changin’ ‘round here, too!”

The Hollywood Alternative

In a true Hollywood ending, Shug’s story would have ended when she burst into the church to face her father –her community, kids, kin and parish. “Reverend Lee, do it to me,” she would have said in the typical Hollywood version, if not for the strong narrative of Alice Walker’s story. And we know exactly what “it” means. “Do it,” is the most middle-school euphemism for f*cking.

SNAP! Now, if you want to hear what f*cking sounds like, listen to Roberta Flack’s Reverend Lee. By the end, Roberta Flack is wailing. No, yelling- wantonly. Not wanton and directionless, but actively f*cking.

Reverend Lee. Do it to me. True Hollywood endings usually reduce their characters to this. Hence, if the true Hollywood ending were the case for Roberta Flack, she’d be no more sophisticated than Lil Kim. Donnie would have been her Biggie- so even the Mister, Celie and Shug become the real-life, modern day Biggie, Faith Evans and Lil Kim. “Kick in the door, wavin’ the four-four/All you heard was poppa don’t hit me no more.” That’s how Biggie rolled. Yet, to reduce Roberta Flack to Reverend Lee would be like reducing the Color Purple to a Hollywood ending.

The true Hollywood ending is that we just f*ck and forget. This attitude becomes the way that we organize our lives: We eat and we forget, so we eat some more. We buy things and forget them, and then buy more. We love our children, then abandon them when our discomfort goes beyond words. We would rather shame children when ‘controversial’ topics arise, for example, than having a meaningful talk.

Indeed, all of that is written in the pop culture, and so this is its critique. (Dear Reader, is your head still spinning from that SNAP!). “My children livin’ in Africa. Africa! Learning different languages. Fresh air, plenty exercise. And they gon’ turn out a heap better than these fools you never tried to raise.”

Just like Shug’s story ending with Reverend Lee, Celie and Nettie and those African kids would have come back, sat around and whopped Mister’s ass. And THAT’S what’s up. That is where Hollywood and the strength of this narrative diverge.

The Color Purple is healing in all its forms: Alice Walker’s imagination, writing and publishing the book, and even the movie-making process involving director Steven Spielberg, who seems to have connected with the story of redemption through forgiveness. Years later, Fantasia rocked in the musical! The narrative is just that strong.

Links bridging each of the steps mentioned above, from imagination to stage and screen, complete with a Quincy Jones tailor-made soundtrack, are not to be understated. For example, writing for me is like a cow eating: Four stomachs, and through a messy process of repeated regurgitation, we get that sweet milk, butter, quark and la crème de la crème.

Alice Walker took a lengthy sabbatical to write The Color Purple, based on her impression of the tenor of a line from a story told to her by an elder. That’s quietude. The best butter is hand-churned; it takes quietude. Otherwise, it can curdle and go to waste. My mother-in-law collects stoneware churns just to remind herself of the quietude she grew up with next to the watermill in northern Germany.

Blues, or the tragicomic Blues sentiment as public intellectual Cornel West describes, is a clear thread throughout The Color Purple. It is that upbeat Blue note of resistance not salacious victimization. It affords many that necessary moment of quietude needed to take a step back from this barrage of violent images, and look reality in the face.

“Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail!” Celie says as she departs her miserable life to construct an earnest and happy existence even in her old age. Where the protest song Strange Fruit only superficially sounds like torture, the avid crooning of the star, be it Billie Holiday or Nina Simone’s version, betrays the voice of victimization, claiming the same voice as Celie: “I’m poor, black. I may even be ugly. But dear God, I’m here!” Otherwise, we risk being enraptured- we risk just f*cking Reverend Lee. We’d be as one dimensional as a Halle Berry character.