*If you’re like me then you remember every single line from the film “The Color Purple.” Who could forget such lines as “Whatcha doin’ up there? It’s gonna rain on yo’ head” and Mister’s response to whether or not Celie had gotten any mail: “Could be, could be not. Who’s to say?”
Every generation has a signature black film that helps shape the psyche of those that were lucky enough to view it. For many of us “The Color Purple” was such a film. For those that don’t know, it is based upon the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker and was directed by Stephen Spielberg.
“The Color Purple” tells the story of Celie and spans 40 years of her life, focusing on her sometimes depressing circumstances. It is one of the most recognizable, critically acclaimed films based on black characters ever. On January 25 “The Color Purple” will be released on Blu-Ray.
EURweb.com had the privilege of discussing the film, the state of race relations in Hollywood and her misconceptions regarding the future of race relations in films with one of stars of “The Color Purple.” We’re talking about none other than Rae Dawn Chong, better known as Squeak in the film.
“It was difficult. I had a lot of reads that I had to do,” Chong told our Lee Bailey when asked how she ended up in the role. “Even though I was starring in a lot of stuff at the time I had to fight for it. It was intense. It was worth it. I’m glad to I got the part.”
And we’re glad Chong got the part as well. She played the mistress of Harpo, Mister Albert’s son and owner of the speakeasy. Rae Dawn tells EURweb.com what she thinks of the film’s historical significance.
“I think that it’s an important film and I think that it’s important historically because we also birthed a big, big icon,” she explained. “It was one of the first big roles for Oprah Winfrey. It was also an opportunity for Whoopi Goldberg. A lot of people came out of that movie. It’s nice to be reminded that ‘The Color Purple’ was something big. Remember, at the time, it wasn’t necessarily as embraced by the community as it is today.”
(Scroll down to watch the classic juke joint scene where Rae Dawn Chong’s Squeak character gets KO’d by Sophia, played by Oprah Winfrey.)
On the positive side, “The Color Purple” painted a picture of a time and place that shaped our ancestors. In closing my eyes it is easy for me to imagine that one or more of the characters in the film was a relative. Perhaps others felt that way as well and maybe, just maybe, this is part of the reason why some brothers can’t stand watching “The Color Purple”. Almost every man in the film is less than admirable.
“25 years ago when this film was released the community didn’t accept it because they thought it was against the black male. The Danny Glover role was controversial and was scene as anti-African American male.
“I think Danny also mentioned the fact that he got a lot of criticism in the community, if I recall, I could be speaking out of term,” she explained. “But I remember him saying on Oprah that he was up against a lot of criticism as a man and as an actor for taking the role. I don’t know what to say about it because our community is so incredibly wounded from our history, and rightfully so. The second part is for someone who is a non-African American (Spielberg) to step into the circle to represent a historical story, whether it’s fictional or non-fictional, they’re up against quite a bit of criticism.”
When dealing with human ideas things get kind of fuzzy. We are, by definition, a complex lot. Regarding the integration of non-blacks becoming involved in the telling of our stories Rae Dawn had this to say.
“It’s a huge conundrum because I would like to see more integration in the media, not just on BET but in general. I would like to see that integration but it’s difficult for someone who is non-African American to step in and interpret our work without harsh, harsh criticism and lack of support.
“It shoots us – as individuals and as a community – in the foot. People like Steven Spielberg, who really had no benefit whatsoever to do a film like that.” Rae explained. “But the fact is that he did make an Oscar-rated film. The fact is he didn’t need to do it, but the fact that he did it took a lot. That just was a part of showing what a cool guy he is, but the fact that our community really criticizes people like that. We need to support people like that for stepping into the fire. Maybe not in this lifetime. I don’t know.”
The pendulum swings both ways. To many African Americans alive today certain subject matter is considered off limits to white directors, but white gatekeepers feel the same way when considering black directors for non-black subject matter.
“It’s truly sad that a Spike Lee or a John Singleton or someone of their caliber are not always the first names called on to direct a ‘Spiderman’ or a non-Afrocentric film. It’s true and it’s sad and it must be so frustrating for them because they are African American film makers. On the other hand, if someone were to ask me in my lifetime will we see that type of integration and I would have to say no. That makes me sad both as a performer and as a human being that we will not be able to do that.
Regarding “The Color Purple” Rae Dawn admits that she didn’t grasp its importance back then. Prior to the film Chong was that “it” black girl and was easily the first crush of many young brothers. She told our Uncle Lee that she was under the false impression that the hits would simply keep coming.
“It’s funny how you don’t realize how important something is until later,” she admitted. “No, I can’t say that I knew it at the time. I was young and I had broken through a few glass ceilings. I had personally done some movies that were not written for a person of color. So, I felt slighty friskier, more hopeful and energetic. I had actually started getting the idea that maybe Hollywood was headed to a point where it wouldn’t be so segregated. At the time we were doing ‘The Color Purple’ I thought it was a natural progression. I thought that we would continue to have these opportunities on these giant stages with these big studios and these big directors. I had this sense of hope that there would be an onslaught of more opportunities like ‘The Color Purple’.
There has been a secret war waging for the promotion and control of black images on the big screen. It was a war Chong tells EURweb.com that she was totally oblivious to.
“Yes, completely and totally and I did not realize that there was a battle, a war was going on. That’s what youth does. With youth you just have no idea. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so bold if I had known what the deal was. It offended a lot of people that I didn’t care to take up our cause for the struggle. I was just too busy out there getting work. I wouldn’t have time. It offended them that I wasn’t applying my afrocentricity into every role. I was just playing people and characters. I didn’t realize that was the beginning of the end of that.”
When asked whether or not she felt “The Color Purple” was a ground breaking, industry changing film Rae surprised us with her answer.
“In the industry? No, I don’t think so,” she said. “If you have seen movies like ‘The Learning Tree’ or ‘Sounder’, those movies were as important. ‘Sounder’ was just a fantastic, fantastic film. One big thing that happened is it introduced us to Oprah. That’s the biggest thing ‘The Color Purple’ really did. The industry hasn’t changed toward integration one iota.”
Speaking of Oprah, we asked her what the woman who would eventually become a media mega-star was like 25 years ago.
“She was very cute and very nervous and very approachable,” said a reflective Rae. “Considering that she is a powerful mutli-billionaire I think she has done a pretty good job remaining approachable. She has had some complications considering all of the negative energy that has been put towards her. Really, don’t you think?”
Yeah, we would say so Rae Dawn. We would say so. In the meantime, we would like to congratulate Rae Dawn Chong on winning EURweb.com’s fictional “Damn! You’re 50? Are You Sure?” Award. Yes, she still looks as fine as ever. As mentioned previously “The Color Purple” is to be (re)released on Tuesday, January 25 on Blu-ray disc. If you didn’t already know, the film stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Rae Dawn Chong, Margaret Avery, William Pugh and the late Adolph Caesar.
The offering includes …
o Conversations with the Ancestors: From Book to Screen o A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple o The Color Purple: The Musical o Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple o Behind-the Scenes and Cast – Focused Featurette Galleries
By the way, we’re giving away copies of Blu-ray version. To win one, go HERE.