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Death of the Purple Controversy

Seems the Color Purple movie is a quiet staple of holiday-season television. Many see it as an inspirational story of a journey to selfhood. The frenzied controversy of bygone years, especially in the immediate aftermath of the holiday-season release in movie theaters in 1985, is hardly known to new generations of viewers. They must dig in the archives to discover the hot takes on the Phil Donahue Show, in the New Republic, in scores of newspapers, and at literary sessions such as the National Black Writers Conference in the spring of 1986. Negative and racist images of Black men versus the right to convey the truth of Black-male perpetuated sexual and domestic abuse. The imperatives of artists related to the undeniable fact that publishers and producers profitably trade in racist stereotypes. Self-expression and the legitimate prerogative to evaluate such expression. It was all extremely knotty discourse to try to unravel. A sign of how crazy things became is that the Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP protested the movie and then criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for not awarding the film an Oscar for any of the eleven categories in which the movie was nominated. As the young folk say, make this make sense.

But all has been forgotten, or so it appears. Cancel-culture warriors don’t take shots at Purple the way they aim at old, reliable targets such as The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and The Planet of the Apes. I remember attending the Broadway production in 2008 with two of my graduate students. My main motive was to see Chaka Khan in the role of Sofia. That was clear. However, I was curious about the type of buzz I would encounter on site almost a quarter century after the movie release. It was all very positive and very tame.

As I reflected on that evening, it occurred to me that it’s hard to have a Purple controversy after the prevalence of gangsta rap and its articulations of street hustling, violence, and misogyny. The music with its neo-bad man, updated-Stagolee aesthetic had become mainstream by 1992. The following year, Reverend Calvin Butts tried to steamroll rap tapes and CDs in front of his church in Harlem but was blocked by rap supporters before settling for a protest outside of SONY’s midtown offices. A few months later, Snoop Dogg appeared on the cover of Newsweek after being indicted for murder, the case that they gave him, a charge of which he was acquitted. It was hard to generate much sympathy for arguments about negative depictions of Black males when Black males, major money, and media were entwined in a weird thug/party fascination to demean Black females, among other aims. An apotheosis of sorts was reached in 2003 with Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video and the infamous swipe of a credit card between butt cheeks, viewed as the ultimate act of objectification to cap what might have been the ultimate booty-clapping presentation. This led students at Spelman College to force cancellation of a scheduled campus appearance by the rapper.

I kind of miss the excitement of the Purple controversy. I teach the novel in literature courses and inform students that it sparked a lot of agitation. They wouldn’t get this from reading celebratory, sisterhood-is-the-key-element retrospectives. Then I get to explain different sides of the issue. I suppose those sessions are really for me. The movie still is not. A scene or two to refresh memory and arguments. Then the reach for the remote to see what else is in rotation.


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