Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor criticized “The Color Purple” for “sanitizing” lesbian romance

Fantasia Barrino and Taraji P. Henson in 2023's The Color Purple
Fantasia Barrino and Taraji P. Henson in 2023's The Color Purple. Photo: Screenshot

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is disappointed in the way the latest adaptation of author Alice Walker’s The Color Purple depicted the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel’s central lesbian relationship.

The Color Purple is a book about Black lesbians,” the out bisexual actress told Buzzfeed in a recent interview. “Whether the choice was made to focus on that or not in the cinematic iterations of The Color Purple, it’s still a movie about Black lesbians. People can try to say the story is about sisterhood, but it’s a story about Black lesbians. Period.”

The 2023 film—itself an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical based on Walker’s novel—is the second adaptation of The Color Purple to hit the silver screen. While director Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated 1985 film starring Whoopi Goldberg downplayed the relationship between Celie, a horrifically abused Black woman living in the rural South in the early 1900s, and free-spirited blues singer Shug Avery, Walker herself praised the new film for its more forthright depiction of the characters as lovers.

But the Oscar-nominated Ellis-Taylor, who appears in the new film as Celie’s (Fantasia Barrino) mother in flashbacks, was unimpressed.

“What is hard for me is that when we have those spaces where we can honor the truth of that, we walk away from it. We suppress it. We hide it. We sanitize it,” she explained. “In the sanitizing of it, someone like me — knowing that The Color Purple is a book about Black lesbians — looks at that and thinks, ‘You’re sanitizing me and my friends, and other people who I love and adore. Why?’ [If] you don’t want to be offensive, then you’re saying to the world that I’m offensive.”

Ellis-Taylor went on to recall seeing Spielberg’s film for the first time: “I knew that watching Margaret Avery kiss Whoopi Goldberg was astonishing, exciting, and affirming. It showed me the possibility of myself and the possibility to love a woman who loves me in return. I’ll never get over that. It lives with me.”

But, she said it has been hard seeing the story’s queer elements ignored in discussions of the new film.

“Why are we talking about it almost in a sort of incidental way?” she asked. “Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple with intention because she was writing about herself. I just want that part of the book to be portrayed in the films with intention, instead of it being incidental. I want people to walk away from The Color Purple thinking, ‘I just saw a movie about Black lesbians.’ I don’t think that has happened.”

Ellis-Taylor also pointed to the importance of having Black queer women at the helm of films that tell their stories. “You have to have Black women and Black queer women in the making of it,” she said. “Neither one of the cinematic iterations of The Color Purple [had Black or Black queer women creating it]. The first one was written and directed by a white man. The remake was written and directed by a Black man. I think the writer might be a queer man, but it ain’t the same.”

“Somebody has to be brave,” Ellis-Taylor said. “Alice Walker wrote a book about Black lesbians, and we’re still telling that story today. The Color Purple is one of the most important books in the canon of world literature. People are still buying the book. There is business in bravery.”

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