SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S.; Literary Devices: motif, theme, symbol, characterization; U.S./1865 – 1913, 1913 – 1929; & Diversity/African-American;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Self-esteem;


AGE: 15+: MPAA Rating-PG-13;

Drama; 1985; 154 minutes; Color. Available from

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

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Adapted from the prize-wining novel, The Color Purple chronicles the story of Celie, a young black woman living in poverty in rural Georgia who is subjected to racism, sexism, sexual abuse, and family dysfunction. At first submissive and treated as a slave by the man she was forced to marry, Celie grows in relationships with the women in her life who show her love and respect. She becomes assertive as she develops self-esteem and the burdens of her past are lifted.

Most of the events in the story center upon associations among black people rather than the interaction between blacks and whites. It thus reveals African-American culture as more than a reaction to white oppression. Still, racial injustice is an important part of the story as is the triumph of the individual over oppression.


Selected Awards: The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards. Whoopi Goldberg won The Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Steven Spielberg won the Best Director Award given by the Directors Guild of America.

Featured Actors: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey.


The novel is frequently assigned to students in high school English classes. Shown in conjunction with reading the book, the film enables students to access difficult text and to conceptualize theme. Through comparison, students can learn how literary techniques such as symbol, motif, and imagery are applicable to film. Moreover, students can begin to develop respect for visual media as a serious art form, increasing their critical viewing skills.

Viewed without reading the book, the movie provides ELA teachers considerable opportunity for assignments requiring research and argumentation as well as analysis and narration.

ELA Classes: Students can learn how literary techniques such as symbol, motif, and imagery are applicable to film and begin to develop respect for visual media as a serious art form. Assignments requiring research and argumentation as well as analysis and narration can sharpen skills as they contribute to understanding aspects of the lives of African-Americans during the first decades of the 20th century.

American History Classes: The Color Purple will introduce students to aspects of the lives of African-Americans during the first decades of the 20th century. The book or the movie are valuable additions to a list of works to be read or watched as homework to explore the genre of historical fiction. See TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project


Moderate: Although the film plays down the sexuality expressed in the novel, most notably the lesbianism suggested in the relationship between Celie and Shug, this element is still present in the movie.


Seek to discover if your child has been assigned to read The Color Purple in his or her English class and be sure that the film is not seen as a substitute for reading the book.. Tell them that much has changed in the lives of both black Americans and women as a whole with the many social movements that have occurred since the years in which the story is set.

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Discussion Questions Here.



See Discussion Question #3 in the Learning Guide.



Question #8 above.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

General Question:

Did Sofia do the right thing when she knocked the major down after he slapped her?

Suggested Response:

There are various ways to respond to this question. One is that the mayor may deserve to be socked in the jaw. But it’s not that simple. To be ethical, a decision must take into account the interests of all the stakeholders. One set of stakeholders were Sofia’s children. They had a right to be raised by their mother. When Sofia allowed her temper to get the best of her, and hit a white man, she was not fulfilling her responsibilities as a mother. After she hit the mayor, she immediately knew that she was in trouble and screamed for her friend to take her children away from the scene so that they would not see the ugliness of what she knew was going to happen to her.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)


1. Certain characters treated Celie with respect. What was the effect on Celie of this treatment?

Suggested Response:

The fact that people like Shug, Sofia, and others treated Celie with respect enabled Celie to see that she deserved respect from everyone, particularly the men in her life. It enabled Celie to break out of the prison of abuse.


2. Give an example from real life of a person who changed when he or she was treated with respect or an example of how you would change if you were treated with respect.

Suggested Response:

For students who chose the second alternative, ask them why they are allowing someone else to determine how they behave. They should act that way now.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. Since the film, as well as the book, can be seen as epistolary in its presentation, it offers the opportunity to exercise writing skills in the informal style of letters. Imagine an adventure requiring several months or even years of your time. Write letters to a friend from any place along the path of that adventure which will make clear where you are, whom you are meeting, what events are happening and what you are learning. Space the letters out over the course of the imaginary adventure. Write at least six letters and take care that they show a story in themselves. Convey your story using action, dialogue, comparison, thoughts, and descriptive language

2. Research and write an informative essay about the cultural traits, both material and non-material, of the Olinka people. Describe the location and characteristics of the land in which the tribe resides, its history and its politics. Trace the culture from the time indicated in the story to the present time.

3. Sofia is an important character whose change from feisty and strong to submissive and finally to an individual regaining some of the strength of her youth. Write an essay in which you track these changes; explain why they occur and what message is revealed in her recovery.

4. Write an opinion essay in which you either support or disclaim the idea that with better communication people are able to live more freely and independently than in times past. Be sure to include cell phones, text messaging, and e-mail in your argument. You may want to discuss the informative power of having hundreds of channels of television and easy access to film as a part of your discussion about communication.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.


The novel, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker is excellent and is assigned reading in many high school English classes.


The Color Purple has been adapted to a Broadway play which is now on national tour. Click here for the official website.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden and was last revised on August 25, 2012.

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RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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