celie johnson

Labor and delivery nurse gently handing me my newborn child: Isn’t this baby the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

Me, thinking about The Color Purple’s 2016 Tony Awards performance when Shug Avery played by Heather Headley (Best Actress 2000) smiled and nodded when Celie Harris Johnson played by Cynthia Erivo (Best Actress 2016) turned to her and sang “I’m beautiful” in the most powerful melodic voice: Yeah Okay Sure 


As Women’s History Month draws to a close, this week we take a look at the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple.  The story centers on Celie Harris Johnson as she struggles to find her voice and self-confidence while coming of age in the American South during the first half of the twentieth century. 

While the narrative of The Color Purple is told from Celie’s point of view, there are two other female characters - Nettie, Celie’s beloved sister, and Shug, the mistress of Celie’s husband Albert - whose histories are essential to the plot but unknown to Celie and, thus, the audience.  To help convey the lives of Nettie and Shug and weave their stories seamlessly into the narrative without leaving Celie’s story, director Steven Spielberg relied on production designer J. Michael Riva and his crew in the art department.  Working from Menno Meyjes’ screenplay, Riva set out to fashion props that would help encapsulate, in an economical and strikingly visual way, the backstories that, once revealed, become pivotal in the propulsion of the film’s narrative. 

To illustrate the part of Shug’s life to which Celie is not privy, Riva and his department created a scrapbook of letters, fliers and sheet music that reflected her life on the road as an entertainer. The scrapbook pages show a side of Albert that is not obvious to Celie or the audience – that he adored Shug and cared enough to collect the mementos of her career.  They show too Shug’s love for Celie, as the sheet music for “Miss Celie’s Blues” reveals that she performs a song in Celie’s honor.   

Using only ink, stationery and vintage postage stamps, the art department also made Nettie’s rich life in Africa come alive.  The variations of fading and discoloration of the correspondence help indicate the passage of time, and the authentic stamps and postmarks trace Nettie’s travels across the African continent, including the Belgian Congo, French Equatorial Africa, Rhodesia and Zanzibar.  Although the letters are only shown briefly onscreen, the detail with which they are imbued implies Nettie’s disparate life and her devotion to Celie throughout the decades they were separated.

For The Color Purple, J. Michael Riva and his team made hidden worlds visible and believable by creating tangible artifacts of the characters’ lives and histories. The artists conducted more than a year of research to achieve authenticity on the production design and set decoration aspects of the film, and their work was recognized with an Academy Award nomination, one of eleven the film received overall.

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