I recently had the pleasure of being on a panel that introduced the March 10th New York Times Film Club's Red Carpet Classic Screening of Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985). The panel moderator was Toure and my fellow panelists included Adepero Oduye (Pariah 2011) and LaChanze who won the 2006 Tony for Best actress in a Musical for playing Celie in the Broadway show. Needless to say the issue of race came up and it was interesting to be engaged in that conversation while absorbing the comments from my blog post entitled "Where is The Help for Black Filmmakers in Hollywood."
The film's powerful ensemble cast included Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Adolph Caesar, and Rae Dawn Chong among many others. It's visualization of the bitter sweet (but mostly bitter) truths that were extracted from Alice Walker's book of the same name and that made all the difference to me as a spectator when I thought about the "authorship" of the work. Thus, I experienced the work as a collaborative venture filled with sincerity, passion, and most important, authenticity. I would later write an essay entitled "Matriarchs, Rebels, Adventurers and Survivors: Renditions of Black Womanhood in Contemporary American Cinema" partly inspired by The Color Purple. In discussing Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) I wrote that: "The film's plot required a superb ensemble cast the likes of which had not been experienced since The Color Purple (1985)."
While I am not usually nostalgic about the past, nor am I prone to "the-good-old-days" talk there was something important about this film and the decades that would follow its release. When I wrote recently "I still dream of a time where we have many images of African Americans to chose from, images that come from black and white directors" I would like to remind us all that there was such a time from 1985 throughout the 1990s. In fact, the very next year would bring Spike Lee's debut feature film She's Gotta Have It (1986) and yes there were diverse African Americans and African characters on big Hollywood screens. Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon with Danny Glover was released in 1987, John Landis' Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and Madge Sinclair in 1988 and Jerry Zucker's Ghost with Whoopi Goldberg in 1990. Lee returned in 1988 with School Daze and in 1989 with Do the Right Thing and Charles Burnett brought us To Sleep With Anger in 1990.
1991 was a big year for African Americans in front of and behind the camera: John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, Bill Duke's A Rage in Harlem, Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust among others. And the years following saw both Hollywood blockbusters with black stars and African American directors making films: Just Another Girl on the I.R.T -- 1992, Deep Cover -- 1992, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit -- 1993, Menace II Society -- 1993, The Glass Shield -- 1994, Friday -- 1995, Independence Day -- 1996, Jerry Maguire -- 1996, Rush Hour -- 1998, Dr Dolittle -- 1998, etc. This is what Spike Lee meant when he said: "I think there have been some improvements and some steps taken back. But overall, the variety of films being offered to African-American audiences is not where it was 10, 15 years ago. It's very narrow."
On Thursday March 15th LA audiences will have the same opportunity to remember The Color Purple and I wonder what they will be thinking about.