Can an Abuser Make Amends? ‘The Color Purple’ Points the Way
Revenge is at the heart of “Promising Young Woman”. Not only does the film begin with its main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) targeting men who take advantage of drunk women, but we soon realize that she is doing so in the service of a greater goal: revenge on the rape and ultimately the suicide of her best friend Nina. Although she seems to get justice in the end, this result is far from gratifying. Rather, it is a sobering reminder that all that remains is vengeance, or at least the fantasy, because most rape victims will never hold their attackers accountable in their lifetime.
For me, the film is an example of how the #MeToo movement has influenced the way sexual assault is portrayed on screen. Works like Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special “Nanette” and Michaela Coel’s breakout HBO show “I May Destroy You” center the voices of rape survivors, while films like “The Assistant” and “Promising Young Woman” focus on the perspective of friends or show female viewers who also suffer as secondary victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, while acceptance of these positions represents progress, these narratives also reflect a real legal system that repeatedly denies or delays justice to rape victims.
As a critic and as a feminist activist, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this dilemma. And for the past two years, I’ve been working on the book In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece, based on Alice Walker’s groundbreaking novel, which featured the standpoint of a rape and domestic violence survivor named Celie. Through his antagonist’s arc of salvation, Albert, “The Color Purple” from 1982, paved the way for today’s debates on atonement, rehabilitation and forgiveness. It anticipates the extrajudicial practice of restorative justice, a means designed to heal the victims and prevent the accused from being insulted again by taking full responsibility for their actions while engaging in a consensual, reparative process with their victims.
When I began researching “The Color Purple,” a story I first read when I was 15, I knew I would focus on Celie’s relationships with her sister Nettie, her bawdy blues lover Shug, and the defiant Sofia . These are the black female characters I turned to when I was struggling with my own sexual assault as a teen in the 1990s, which I introduced to my students as a young college professor in the early 2000s and where I did find new inspiration today.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how much my middle-aged self would be attracted to Albert, the character Celie fearfully refers to as M______ (Mister) for most of her life. Celie is forced to marry Albert, a much older widower, by Pa, who raped and impregnated her and gave her two children away. When Celie joins Albert’s family, he constantly beats her while she is raising his children and looking after his house. Only over time do we realize how broken he is, defeated by both Jim Crow and his domineering father, who prevented him from marrying the love of his life, Shug. In other words, while its anger is never justified, the novel tries to understand its origins and gives it a powerful plot that was often initially overlooked by the novel’s greatest critics.
Although The Color Purple earned Walker a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel also met with a lot of criticism, particularly from prominent black male writers and community activists for its portrayal of the abuse by Pa and Albert and were offended by Celie healing from this violence in a romantic relationship with Shug. When the film debuted in 1985, Walker and the filmmakers were ill-prepared to defend themselves against allegations that the film reproduced malicious stereotypes about African American men. Such judgments overlooked the healing that Albert’s own desire for reparation brought about.
After Celie discovers that Albert has been hiding Nettie’s letters from her for decades, she goes with Shug and curses Albert.
Soon Albert’s life – his farm, his home, his family – falls apart, forcing him to make a critical decision: either break down or find a way to reconcile with Celie. And so he takes the opportunity and begins the long journey of re-establishing his relationships with his son and grandchildren and, in time, with Celie and her children.
Albert’s bow, however, was vastly abbreviated in the Oscar-nominated film in which he was indelibly played by Danny Glover. But even with his limited on-screen transformation, I am re-seeing Albert when I watch the film now.
Glover infused his character with such charisma, dignity and depth that Albert is neither a pure villain nor an impeccable victim. Instead, he is a black man at the crossroads and thus has the opportunity to imagine the paths of masculinity that lie ahead of us.
But Walker’s vision of Albert was realized in the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2005, and even more fully in a 2015 revival with Isaiah Johnson in the role. In this version, Albert’s collapse is even more extensive, which makes his turnaround all the more meaningful and memorable.
“Albert gets his release and he’s doing something,” said John Doyle, the director of Tony-winning revival. “He’s doing things for the kids in the church and maybe it’s all a little through a pink gauze. But there’s something wonderful about that. “
In these days of arguing on college campuses, in convention halls, or in our homes about how best to forgive or punish those who have harmed others, we often overlook a crucial aspect of the debate, which could help us move forward.
How do you actually atone for violence they inflict on others?
Given the widespread racial prejudice in the criminal justice system, it makes sense that black women like Walker envisioned accountability outside the courtroom. Among the recent #MeToo narratives, “I May Destroy You”, created by black British artist Coel, suggests restorative justice through the relationship between Arabella (Coel) and his colleague Zain (Karan Gill). After removing his condom during sex without her consent, Zain can later earn her reluctant trust by helping her complete her book, which in turn leads to her journey of self-acceptance and rebirth.
But then Zain revived his own writing career under a pseudonym. Albert takes the much more arduous path of acknowledging his violence and all the damage he has done.
And in the final moments of “The Color Purple” on stage, his hard work leads to his standing with his family. He’s not a hero – that status belongs to Celie, Shug, and Sofia – but he still gives us hope.
Because most survivors of violence will never hear an apology or benefit from such a refund, Albert remains one of the most elusive and extraordinary characters in American culture, a figure who can teach us all to take responsibility for our actions and deliver salvation find way.