In Blitz Bazawule’s historical film ‘The Color Purple,’ protagonist Celie Harris-Johnson forms an endearing but ambiguous relationship with Shug Avery, an infamous singer and performer. Celie meets Shug for the first time as the love of her husband Albert “Mister” Johnson’s life. Then she finds a confidante in the singer, only for their relationship to become sensual, leading them to a kiss. Celie and Shug’s togetherness makes one curious about their sexual orientation as well. The movie, like Alice Walker’s source novel of the same name, is a nuanced exploration of sexuality and self-discovery! SPOILERS AHEAD.
Celie and Shug’s Sexuality
In Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple,’ Celie doesn’t identify herself as gay or bisexual. But Shug is more or less the only person she loves romantically. Furthermore, Walker made it clear that her protagonist is not attracted to men. “[Celie] is based on the life of my grandmother, Rachel, a kind and loving woman brutally abused by my grandfather, and whoever was in reality the father of her children, offspring none of the family ever saw. […] It is safe to say, after a frightful life serving and obeying abusive men, who raped in place of ‘making love,’ my grandmother, like Celie, was not attracted to men,” the author said in a statement.
Blitz Bazawule, who directed the movie based on Walker’s novel and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, and Marsha Norman’s musical of the same name, considers Celie as a queer icon. “Celie is a queer icon, and Alice Walker has been very vocal about that. Our job was to just lean into it harder, and give a little bit more context and a little more beauty to her coming-out moment,” the filmmaker told the Los Angeles Times. Marcus Gardley, who penned the 2023 adaptation, believes that Celie is lesbian and Shug is bisexual, as per an interview he gave to Queerty. In the novel, Shug maintains seemingly consensual relationships with both men and women, which sheds light on her sexuality.
Celie and Shug’s Intimacy
In Walker’s novel, Celie and Shug do get intimate, which leads them to sleep together. “She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back, say, um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other. […] Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too. […] Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too,” reads ‘The Color Purple.’
In Bazawule’s 2023 adaptation, Celie and Shug are seen waking up from the same bed, indicating that they likely made love. In Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation, the intimacy between the two characters is nearly non-existent, especially after producer Quincy Jones received boycott threats from people “who adamantly opposed any display of sexual affection between Celie and Shug,” as per the Los Angeles Times. When Scott Sanders set out to produce a Broadway musical based on Walker’s novel, he made sure that it would focus on Celie and Shug’s romance.
Bazawule’s movie adaptation of the musical, co-produced by Sanders and Spielberg, further dives into the intimacy between the two women. “There’s a lot more intimacy between Celie and Shug in this movie than even was in the Broadway musical because we’re not on a proscenium stage anymore,” Sanders told the Los Angeles Times. “It was important for us to make it abundantly clear to audiences that these two women had both a sexual relationship and a loving relationship, and that Celie had one love in this entire story,” he added, confirming that Celie and Shug indeed slept together.
Walker also approves the depiction of Celie and Shug’s intimacy in the 2023 adaptation. “I really love it that [audiences] have to take away the reality that Shug and Celie become lovers because I think that we have really needed help there. We really needed to see that love is love. You know, that people love whoever they love, and it is their right to do that,” the author told The Hollywood Reporter.