Posted in Film, Writing

Can White People Tell Stories About People of Color?

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

The Color Purple Review

In 1975 a little movie called Jaws opened and changed the way people viewed the summer blockbuster; it also started the career of a young man who had been searching for a break in the film business — Steven Spielberg. Over the next decade, he would go on to direct such blockbusters as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

By 1984 he had become the most successful film director of his time, and after helming the instant hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg had the urge to try something different, to take his stabilized success and direct a film that no one would expect him to make. He turned to an award-winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple, which tells the story of a young girl who is torn away from her sister to work for an older man who essentially turns her into his slave.

Spielberg would be helming a film that was composed primarily of men and women of color, and instead of going to an already established actress for the main role of Celie, he took an extreme chance by casting the then-unknown Caryn Elaine Johnson, also known as Whoopi Goldberg, who had been doing stand-up comedy.

Apparently she impressed Spielberg at an audition, and only at the time considering her for a supporting role, immediately realized she would be perfect for Celie, and he cast her soon afterward. The film was filmed in late 1984 and early 1985 and opened in theaters in the holiday season of 1985, earning $94 million at the box office. At the time it was noteworthy for being such a departure for Spielberg, but time has proven that it’s also a tremendous motion picture with a striking and star-making performance by Goldberg.

Whoopi Goldberg will forever have one performance that is filled with emotion, passion, and depth — Celie.

Separated from the sister she loves, she is forced to marry an older man named Albert (played by Danny Glover) who turns her into his slave, completely and utterly torn apart from the world and only to be useful to him. Goldberg portrays Celie as a heartbroken and unfortunate woman who eventually accepts the fate of her life, even though she is always optimistic of someday finding her sister. What makes the performance extraordinary, however, is the transformation the character goes through from a wounded, quiet little girl to a strong, intelligent woman.

Even though The Color Purple is a masterpiece that has a universal theme that relates to everybody of any color, there are strong images of race in the film. There is a startling scene where an intimidating woman of color named Sofia (played by Oprah Winfrey) tells the local white mayor to go to hell, and a harmful crowd of white people confronts her. It’s a scene that shows that even the most courageous and confident women of color in the early 1900s had no real power against others.

Gender also plays a big role in the movie, as the main plot deals with a woman who has to take both physical and verbal abuse from a man. The film sets the picture of what it was like in the South in the early 1900s in terms of the all-powerful black man who will make his lonely, pitiful wife do whatever he tells her to. Celie’s journey is so mesmerizing because she eventually comes to realize that the man doesn’t have to be the ruler for the household and that she can finally make a life worth living on her own, away from the bastard of a man she’s had to put up with for decades.

There is an extraordinary shot toward the end of the film when Celie is finally leaving Albert for good, and as she gets into the automobile, he barges out of the house and approaches her. Celie puts her arm out to stop him, and the camera swoops under her as she says, “Everything you’ve done to me… I already done to you.” It’s a powerful moment that sums up all of Celie’s emotions toward the man she never loved.

Sexuality is also present, only in one scene of The Color Purple, but it is a key scene that demonstrates the evolution of Celie toward becoming a woman. It’s a beautiful scene in which Celie is confronted by her friend Shug (played by Margaret Avery), who believes Celie would be a much prettier girl if she smiled more.

There’s a hint of lesbianism in the scene, but it has more to do with Celie opening up in her sexuality as a woman who isn’t afraid to smile when she feels the desire to, and also to recognize that she does indeed have the ability to exude sexuality even though her uncaring husband has looked down on her as if she were invisible.

The idea of the stereotype isn’t highly prevalent in The Color Purple because it’s a film about truth, about what it was really like for people of color to live in the early days of the twentieth century, and it’s not meant to be a portrayal of various stereotypes. However, if there were anything in the film to be considered a general stereotype, it would be that women of color are good, and most everyone else is bad.

If one pays particular attention to the film, he might notice that all the white people are depicted as racists, and most of the men (including Albert) are depicted as rotten, evil people. This choice of representation that Spielberg makes for his film certainly has a great deal to do with giving a sympathetic quality to Celie so that the audience wants her to overcome the people who don’t want her to succeed.

It’s not only remarkable that Steven Spielberg directed such a departure from the kind of films he had been making before The Color Purple, but also remarkable that Spielberg directed such a brilliant departure. He also proved for the first time that he could direct actors toward emotional, heartbreaking, genius performances, especially Goldberg.

In fact his work on The Color Purple is all the more amazing because he gets a terrific performance out of someone who had never even starred in a movie before, let alone a somber drama. It was a breakthrough film for Spielberg, as he went on to do such notable dramatic work as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but his raw talent with actors has never been as evident as it was in The Color Purple.

The film was well received by audiences, as it went on to be hailed by critics and nominated for multiple awards. Probably the most glowing review came from renowned film critic Roger Ebert, of Siskel & Ebert fame, who praised The Color Purple as the best film of 1985. It was nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, and won one award for Goldberg’s performance.

Some strange occurrences happened next, as people expected the film to sweep the Oscars after it was nominated for a whopping eleven awards. Spielberg had just recently won the prestigious Directors’ Guild of America award, which typically guarantees an Oscar for the director, yet he didn’t even get nominated. Furthermore, the movie went on to not win a single Academy Award, and to date, this film holds the record for most nominations and then not winning any.

No matter how many awards The Color Purple won or didn’t win, it remains one of my all-time favorite films, a spellbinding look at race and gender, and the never-ending bond between two remarkable sisters.

Watching Like a Writer

The Color Purple is such a rich film that you really can look at it from about fifteen different angles as a fiction writer, but what especially compels me about the movie is that it’s the story of African-Americans told extremely well by a Caucasian director.

This gets me to thinking about writing about people of color if you’re a person of another color. It’s a topic I’ve been consumed by for many years, one I’ll surely be going more in depth on this issue on a future article. I was especially consumed by this topic recently when I, a white male, wrote a POV character in a recent novel from the perspective of a black female.

Some have told me what I’m doing is important, and within my right.

Others have suggested I should have avoided writing this character, that I don’t have the authority to put myself in her shoes.

I definitely come at the issue from both angles, in that I feel I should be able to write about people of other experiences, of other races, in my fiction — I don’t just want to write about myself for the rest of my life — but that writing a character from a different race absolutely brings with it a level of responsibility.

Exercise!

Look at your latest work-in-progress.

1. What kind of representation do you include? Is it all white characters?

2. What’s the race of your protagonist? Why did you choose that race?

3. Could he or she be written as a different ethnicity? Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “Can White People Tell Stories About People of Color?

  1. I don’t understand your point about The Color Purple at all.

    The way you talk about Spielberg, it’s like you’re saying he wrote the story. But he didn’t. Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple. Like any good director, he digested what she wrote and shot the movie based on her story and characters. But you’re acting as if Spielberg capturing Walker’s story well was the same as him writing it and therefore makes the case that whites can write for black characters? There is no equivalence between someone writing a story and someone adapting it, any more than there is between a composer writing a song and someone playing or singing it.

    That aside, it’s perfectly fine of people of different races to write for each other, but only as long as the ethnicity isn’t central to the character’s story or identity. In other words, if someone wants to write about a Japanese character, that’s fine, but then it becomes a problem if you want to now write about the “Japanese experience” when you’re not Japanese; in other words, you want to try to imagine what life might be like growing up as a Japanese schoolgirl or a salaryman. How could you possibly know? You can’t, and at best what you would envision would be completely inauthentic, stereotypical, cartoonish.

    Ditto, whether it’s writing for blacks, latinos or Muslims or even whites of a different socio-economic class. No matter how well written, your writing will come out as inauthentic and hollow if you try to delve deeper and capture what it’s like to be black or latino or Muslim or whatever.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments! You’re right in that I made too far a leap here between a topic I wanted to discuss and Spielberg directing Alice Walker’s story. Adaptation IS different than tackling a story by yourself. Thanks so much for the feedback.

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