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3 'Color Purple' Actresses Talk About Its Impact

January 31, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

They are, from left to right on the couch in front of you, TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Ashanti princess Akosua Busia and born-again singer Margaret Avery. They are the actresses of "The Color Purple," minus Whoopi Goldberg, and no matter what anyone says or writes about the movie--no matter what you, white guy with the pointed questions, think--they are proud of it.

They know about the protests from black groups, who believe that the film promotes racial stereotypes about the black family, that it specifically portrays black men as incorrigible wife and child abusers.

They've read the reviews by film critics who have excoriated director Steven Spielberg for taking Alice Walker's complex Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and turning it into a slick, one-dimensional commercial entertainment.

They even acknowledge having been concerned about some of these things while the movie was being made.

But all three argue that Spielberg preserved the greater social issues of Walker's novel and, more importantly, did it in a way that would assure a broad audience.

"In all honesty," says Busia, who plays Celie's sister Nettie, "there were moments when I thought, 'Come on, Steven, how cleaned up is this going to be?'

"I argued with him at one point about the opening (the book opens with 14-year-old Celie being sexually abused by the man she thinks is her father; the movie opens on a field of flowers). He said, 'Look, you can't lose the audience. If we started the way the book starts, people would walk out.' He's right.

"We have to face it. This movie needed to be made and seen. If it had been made by a black director, me and maybe Margaret and Oprah would have seen it in an art theater somewhere and nobody else would have heard of it."

Before the other two speak up, and they will, let's set the scene.

We're in Winfrey's suite in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It is the day of the Golden Globe Awards and Winfrey, a Chicago TV talk-show host whose debut film performance as the headstrong Sofia in "Purple" has earned her a nomination as best supporting actress, has just flown in to attend.

Busia, the daughter of an Ashanti chief who was also prime minister of Ghana in West Africa, just arrived from the East Coast to do publicity for the movie. Avery, the veteran actress who plays blues singer and reformed vamp Shug Avery in "Purple," lives in here.

The three, who had not met until they began work on "Purple" last year in North Carolina, were seeing one another for the first time in more than a month and the reunion, with the three of them in a noisy knot shrieking and hopping around the room, might have knocked glasses over in the restaurant six floors below.

Throughout the interview, the three women talked more to one another than to the reporter. It was their first get-together since the movie opened and there was a lot of catching up to do. There was the shock that each of them felt at the controversy stirred up by the film, and there were the personal observations.

"I have to share this with you," Avery said, turning to her friends and taking their hands. "As a black woman in Hollywood what this has meant to me: In 'The Color Purple,' Shug Avery gave Celie a sense of self-worth. 'The Color Purple' has given Margaret Avery a sense of self-worth."

Avery went on to explain how she was on the verge of giving up her acting career and had actually started taking typing lessons--thinking she would become a court reporter--not long before landing the Shug Avery role.

"Now as an artist, I can appreciate what this movie means to people. They seem to be so grateful."

"It's true, they want to touch you," Busia added. "Everybody I talk to--the black men in particular--want to say how much they cried and loved the movie."

The serious moments in this interview were short-lived. When Avery reached the climax of her career-crisis story, describing a moment when she looked into the casket at an aunt's funeral and felt joy--"like she was saying, 'I'm OK; you're OK. Go call your agent,"'--Winfrey and Busia howled with laughter.

Then all three began repeating the line, as if it were a chant:

"I'm OK; you're OK. Go call your agent."

When Winfrey volunteered that, as a first-time actress, she had been "terrified" during the filming and intimidated by Spielberg, Busia and Avery teamed up, imitating the robust and outgoing Winfrey's husky voice with mock terror: "I'm so terrified. Look out, everybody, here I come, and I'm scared out of my wits!"

With the asides edited out, there were moments of sincere reflection by each of the actresses, all of whom acknowledged understanding beforehand that these were potentially career-making roles. They're all deeply religious, too, and recalled the specific prayers they think may have gotten answered.

"God has been working with these three women, let me tell you," Winfrey said.

The actresses come from widely varying backgrounds, and they were drawn to the issues and characters in the book for different reasons.

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