Aspects of Purple: You got mail?
Although much more should be said (and will be in the future) about Steven Spielberg’s masterful adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, I’ve always been struck by one of the most obvious symbols in the film, the old mail box.
From the moment I first saw the film when it came out in 1985 right up to my most recent viewing a few days ago, the film’s primary symbol is a hunk of rusting tin.
The film, of course, outraged many when it first hit the screen because many black males thought it gave a poor portrayal of men, painting them as rapists and molesters who beat their wives and children.
Yet anyone even remotely familiar with Walker and the black feminist movement she unwittingly began with her writing would immediately discount that aspect of the film as pure propaganda, but also as a testimony to how faithful Spielberg was in his adaptation.
The film features Whoppi Goldberg in her screen debut as Celie, the daughter of a sharecropper living in rural Georgia. As a little girl in 1909, Celie is the victim of incest and becomes pregnant from the man who assumes to be her father. With few options, she marries a wimp of a guy who beats her and plays around in front of her – even to the point of wanting to make love to her sister. When her sister refuses, Celie’s husband drives her off the farm, separating Celie from her only friend. Celie’s sister promises to write and does for years, but Celie’s husband takes control of the mail box and refuses to even let her know if a letter has come. Not until her husband’s mistress comes to live with them, does Celie find out about the steady stream of letters that have come for years, beginning of personal revolution that eventually allows her to leave the abusive man.
In re-viewing the film recently, I have come to appreciate just how much more the mail box serves as a significant visual symbol for the ongoing action – although I am not yet adept enough to understand all of its aspect.
Even now, definitely older and supposedly wiser, I struggle to shape a definitive meaning to this most obvious visual symbol of Spielberg’s masterpiece – that twisted, rusted hunk of tin shrouded with sharp, dead tree branches.
For me, the mail box has become the central focus of the film, something dead in an otherwise very green and living world around it. Not only does it serve as a symbol for a person cut off from other living things (Celie who cannot communicate with the people she loves most with her husband controlling the only access), but its shape as a receptacle makes it a Freudian symbol of controlled femininity over which the brutal male stands guard. The mail box also serves as a symbol for the husband’s infidelity since he receives letters from his lovers by way of it.
As with many Spielberg films, communication is a vital ingredient to a healthy community and this lacking in this film says something about the community as a whole. The bail box serves as an apt symbol for a failed society.
In other ways, it also serves as symbol for the decaying male, who is redeemed through the mail box as well when he receives the communication from Celie’s sister and takes action to make certain the sisters are reunited again.
Since I have only recently gone back to the film, I’m certain there is much about the mail box that I have missed and that much more symbolic meaning can be squeezed out of it, showing just how well-crafted a film it is, and why the Academy owes Spielberg an apology for refusing him an academy award nomination. But that is a whole other story.