The Color Purple
About this articleCreated by Janet Claussen, Atlanta, GA, and Gloria Leigh of Dayton, OH, for the Voices Project, an initiative of Saint Mary's Press to nurture and support the spirituality of adolescent girls, these activities based on The Color Purple, develop the themes of empowerment, finding one's voice, and transformation.
A CAUTIONARY NOTE: One of the criticisms of The Color Purple is that it depicts the men in the story as primarily abusive. Also, this movie is PG-13, mostly because of the violence and strong language. We recommend the movie for listening sessions with older adolescent girls with the guidance of adults who can help the participants get beneath the surface and recognize the theme of "voice," its loss, and its recovery.
Synopsis: This movie, based on the book by Alice Walker, is a powerful story of conversion with a strong theme of voices. It is the story of Celie, daughter of a sharecropper in rural Georgia during the Depression. The movie opens with a very young Celie giving birth to a child, immediately taken from her by her father, who has sexually molested Celie. She has a close relationship with her younger sister Nettie, who runs away rather than be abused by her father, or raped by Albert, a widower with small children. As the oldest daughter, Celie is given in marriage to Albert whom she refers to as Mistah. In her new home, both Mistah and his children verbally and physically abuse her. As she grieves for her lost sister, Celie rarely smiles or speaks. She has little or no voice.
When the lovely Shug, an old flame of Albert's comes to stay, Celie finds someone whom she admires and comes to love. Shug encourages Celie, reaffirming her as a person and as a woman. As Shug leaves, Celie tries to join her, but is too frightened to make the move. Later in the movie, she has another chance to leave with Shug, and this time finds her voice in a powerful scene that reveals much about the culture of the times in terms of women and men.
There are multiple subplots of women's relationships in this story:
- Celie's relationship with her adult stepson and his wife, Sophie: Sophie is a strong woman who loses her voice when she is jailed for being an uppity "colored."
- Shug's relationship with her preacher father, who rejects her because of her flamboyant lifestyle.
- Nettie's relationship to Celie, told through letters Nettie sends from Africa where she has gone with a missionary family. (The family had adopted Celie's two infant children, sired by her father.) In the scenes from Africa, there is an interesting reference to girls who are not allowed to be educated there. There is also a scene where the children undergo a tribal rite of passage.
Introduce the focusing activity by asking how many girls have seen the movie. You may want to ask the following questions:
- How did you like it?
- What was your favorite scene?
- Were there parts of the movie that upset you or that made you feel particularly good about the characters?
Summarize the plot for them as a review or introduction to the context of the two clips you are about to show. Tell them that you will show them two clips from the movie, and you want them to watch and listen carefully for details.
First clip: Fast-forward the film to about 1 hour 21 minutes into the movie. This is the scene where Celie is packing to go with Shug. It is a very short clip--end it with Celie collapsing in the road as Shug drives off--about 2 minutes.
Second clip: Fast forward to about 2 hours and 2 minutes. This is the dinner table scene when Celie speaks out and tells Albert (Mistah) and the family that she is leaving with Shug. There is some crude language and threatened violence in this 8-minute clip that ends with Celie driving off with Shug in her car declaring her newfound freedom.
Discussion Questions: After both clips, proceed to the following discussion questions. Use as many as time allows, but don't skip the set of final questions at the end of this list.
- What did you notice about the clips that you saw?
- What kind of person did Celie appear to be in the first clip?
- Why do you think Celie was so afraid?
- What do you think Celie wanted to say?
- What did she actually say?
- What does Shug mean when she asks Celie "the cat's got your tongue?"
- What was Mistah's reaction to Celie's wanting to leave?
- How did he react when she collapses?
- In the second clip, what had changed about Celie?
- What do you think may have helped to change her?
- What does she mean by the line, "Time for me to get away and into creation?" What does this have to do with the title of the movie? (Someone might remember the scene earlier in the movie when she and Shug are walking in the field and talk about the flowers and the color purple--very strong references to the goodness of God.)
- What is Mistah's reaction to Celie's announcement?
- "You're not getting any of my money."
- "Shug got spunk. Shug can stand up and talk to anybody. She can be noticed. You're too scared to open your mouth to people."
- "You're black, you're poor; you're a woman…you're nothin' at all."
- What about the other characters…how do they react?
- Mistah's father?--What does his reaction say about the traditional roles of men and women in society? Is this still true today?
- Mary Agnes, a.k.a. Squeak, how does she find her voice?
- Sophia (whose name means Wisdom)--what does she say and do that is important? Tell us about her "voice"--how she used to use it, why and how she was silenced.
Lines worth noting:
- "The dead has arisen!" (speaking about Miss Sofie when she speaks up)
- "I knows what it's like to want to sing and you have it beat outcha."
- "When I see you, Miss Celie, I know there is a God."
- How did you feel when Celie picks up the knife? Why do Shug and Sofie stop her?
- When Celie leaves with Shug, how did you feel? What do you think about her words, "I'm poor, I'm black, and I may even be ugly . . . but dear God, I'm here!"
- How does Shug use her voice?
- How do the women in the film empower each other?
- Where are Celie's mother, Shug's mother, and Sophie's mother?
- Can you think of other movies--animated or others--where there are strong (sometimes mean) fathers, but no mother? Why are fathers more common than mothers in films, especially fairy tales?
- Can you think of movies where there are strong mother figures in relationship with their adolescent daughters?
- What role do mothers play in determining how a girl will use her voice?
- Girls today lose their voices in society? How? How big a factor is gender? race?
- Can you think of examples?
The Color Purple Prayer Service (30-40 minutes)
Materials and Preparations:
- African motif fabric (preferably with purple color scheme) large enough to cut 3-by-45 inch strips to use as stoles for all participants
- individual purple flowers for each participant
- additional fabric for draping prayer space table or large boxes
- flowers or plants (African violets are particularly appropriate), sculptures, candles (don't forget matches), pictures, appropriate books, and religious objects--cross, crucifix, statue--for enhancing prayer space.
- CD or tape player
- CD or tape of the soundtrack from The Color Purple or other music selections
- a Bible
- a copy of prayer service for each participant
Prepare a prayer space with tables, boxes, or available structures to gather the group of participants. Decorate the space with suggested materials above. If the girls will be receiving individual flowers, place them in vases as part of the prayer space.
(Celie's Letter to God, adapted from the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Simon and Schuster, 1982)
My friend Shug says that you are inside me and everybody else. Everybody comes into the world with You but only them that search for you inside find you. And sometimes you show yourself to us even if us not looking, or don't know what us looking for. Shug say you love everything I love--and a mess of stuff I don't. But more than anything, you love admiration. I ast Shug if you are vain. "Naw", she say. "Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing." She says that you get upset if we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think that pleasing you is all you care about. But any fool living in the world can see you always trying to please us back . . . always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect. Just like the Bible say, you just want to be loved. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. Amen.
Response to Opening Prayer:
Choose one of the following options using the appropriate song from The Color Purple soundtrack. Or adapt other music selections.
Option 1: Play disc 1, track 5: Nettie Teaches Celie, an instrumental piece that is about 4 minutes long. During this time, invite the participants to "sing, dance, make faces" as they give each other the purple flower bouquets from the prayer space.
Option 2: Use music for quiet reflection. Play disc 1, track 2 on the CD (Main Title), a short (2 min.) version of the theme music. Invite the girls to think about the message that Celie is trying to convey in her prayer. Adults can hand out flowers to each girl.
Invite the participants to listen to the Word of God--a story about a woman of the early church who sold purple cloth. It is best to read it directly from the Bible during the session. It is provided here for your reflection, followed by background information if you want to say a few words about the passage.
Reading: Acts 16:13-15,40
"On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. God opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to God, come and stay at my home.'. . . After leaving prison, they went to Lydia's home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed."
Background information for adult leader who may wish to do a reflection on the reading:
People who study the Bible closely say that Lydia was an influential and successful businesswoman in a city called Philippi. Since there is no mention of male relatives, she was probably the head of her household. Perhaps she often dressed in purple as she walked through the streets of Philippi. There, by the banks of the Gangites River, she met with a circle of Jewish women to worship God, although she probably was not Jewish herself, but a Gentile, a worshiper of God. When she attended a Sabbath service, she heard Paul speak about Jesus, and she came to believe in him as the Messiah. She was the first Christian convert in Europe, and she actually started the faith community in her own city when she invited other believers to gather in her home for the Eucharist. Her home became a safe place for persecuted Christians, like Paul, who came to her home after he was released from prison, for freeing a female slave from demons. Later, in Paul's letter to the people of Philippi, he shows his deep affection when he writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now" (Phil. 1:3-5).
Lydia was a leader--a partner with Paul in spreading the Gospel. Her house church was a center of missionary activity including families, relatives, converts, former slaves, and clients who bought her purple cloth. They were a new people, women and men as equals, working side by side.
Lydia is our biblical sister, a convert energized by the Spirit, who used her spiritual power and authority as a servant leader who gathered the people of God together to break bread. She was well respected by both men and women alike, including Saint Paul.
(Adapted from Praying with Women of the Bible, Bridget Mary Meehan, Liquori/Triumph, 1998, pgs. 125-127)
Sharing: Perhaps women like Celie and Shug or young girls like you would have belonged to the church that gathered at Lydia's. We would share with each other as Lydia did with the Jewish women and Celie and Shug did in The Color Purple, our thoughts and feelings about God. In fact, as we gather today, we are the People of God. We are using our voices to spread the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus.
What good news do you have to share with each other? What do you want to tell God about being a girl today? (share letters to God, written during the session 4)
Vesting with Stoles: with instrumental music from Color Purple soundtrack (disc 2, track 13: Reunion/Finale)
In most cultures and faith traditions, when a young person enters adolescence, she or he is fully welcomed in some way into the community by the adults. The Catholic church celebrates this full initiation in the sacrament of Confirmation. In other cultures, the women of the community may perform a ceremony for girls while men initiate the boys into the male world. Today, we celebrate you as girls who are becoming women by vesting you with the color purple, a remembrance of our time together--a reminder to use your voices to strengthen your relationship with God, with yourself and others, and with all of God's creation.
Invite each girl to come up to the table and receive a remembrance of the day. As adult leaders place a stole around each girl's neck, they can speak a blessing such as this one:
(Name), remember that you are created in God's image, a wonder to behold!
After each girl has received her stole, close the prayer service with an appropriate song.
- Heaven Belongs to You. disc 2, track 6, The Color Purple soundtrack: short (1 min.) upbeat Gospel music by women members of the Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ Choir
- a familiar selection from Lead Me, Guide Me hymnal, (GIA Publications, 800-GIA-1358.
- an appropriate secular song that would be familiar to the girls, like "Count on Me," by Whitney Houston on the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack
AcknowledgmentsCopyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.
Published January 1, 2001.