THE COLOR PURPLE - A lesson in connecting character arcs to theme. #SpoilerAlert
I have experienced every iteration of Miss Celie's story:
- The novel
- The film
- The Broadway Tour ft. Fantasia (at the Pantages in Los Angeles in 2009. Fun Fact: This was the show that reintroduced me to my love for musical theater. It's why I eventually quit my job as an exec at The Syfy Channel and became a touring, performing artist myself. 😉)
- The Tony-award winning Broadway revival ft. Cynthia Erivo
Each iteration takes the epistolary novel of Celie writing letters to God and Nettie writing letters to Celie and turns them into strong vignettes throughout time as Celie learns to love herself, find joy, forgive, and trust God.
Because the story is told this way, you may find it hard to follow the structure. It leaps through time with a mostly inactive protagonist. So why does it work? 👇🏾
HOW BREAKING DOWN FILMS HELPS YOUR SCREENWRITING
As a screenwriter, you no longer have the privilege of watching movies for pure entertainment. You can try, but it's our goal to ruin it for you. Kidding... well, not really.
Watching films and breaking down the beats is one of the best ways to learn screenwriting. Knowing which beats are present or lacking and how they are functioning or not functioning in any given story strengthens your ability to execute those beats in your story. It's a great exercise.
So the next time you're watching, pull up your notes app and jot down the beats. Are they tracking? Why or why not?
LET'S GET INTO THE COLOR PURPLE (2023)
Though Celie has a clear external goal - to be reunited with her sister - it is her internal needs that we are tracking. We don't watch her try to do anything. Instead, we watch her grow with the introduction of each new female character.
Celie not only feeds off of them, but they her. Their lights shine and dim at different hours, but ultimately, they would not have made it without each other. Which leads us to and through the theme of sisterhood.
Each woman represents what Celie needs - fight (Sofia) and love (Shug), while Nettie represents them both.
Inactive protagonists don't often work. We want to see them trying to accomplish something. That's how they grow. But, we're automatically invested in Celie as the underdog, so when her sister is ripped from her life, we want her to win. We stay because we're rooting for her to stand taller and taller until her feet are perfectly flat footed on the ground.
Let's track Celie:
🟢 The Normal - We meet Celie as unloved and unwanted by all but her sister Nettie. She is r@ped by her father, and her children are stripped from her arms after birth creating a hole in her heart.
🟢 Inciting Incident - Nettie is taken away from Celie. She promises to write a letter each day. We know this is the inciting incident and not the moment Celie is married to Mister because this moment CAUSES a goal. The inciting incident must cause a goal to be achieved or problem to be solved.
🟢 Goal - Reunite with Nettie. This is what we should be tracking Celie trying to accomplish. But, of course, we don't.
🟢 Break into Act II - Celie is a shy, insecure adult who hasn't received one letter from Nettie and is being beaten by her husband, Mister. This is her new normal. She doesn't dare fight against it, and it makes her question God.
🟢 Instead of taking steps to find her sister (her external goal), change comes to her in the form of Sofia (fight) and Shug (love).
🟢 Throughout Act II, instead of watching Celie go through a trial and error being active towards her goal, we watch her slowly become more secure, learning to love herself through Shug's eyes. Shug eventually finds letters from Nettie that Mister had been hiding from Celie. This sparks change.
🟢 Celie watches Sofia fight any and everything around her until it catches up with her and her light is dimmed when she's thrown in jail. Celie must now fight for her.
🟢 Midpoint - With the strength of Sofia and the love from Shug, Celie leaves Mister declaring - “I may be black. I may be poor. I may be ugly. But, I'm here.” Celie is now standing on her own two feet.
🟢 Instead of a usual rock bottom, we're in Celie's new normal. She inherits the family store from her father and opens her own shop (her social proof of being a great seamstress is evidenced throughout). Though her internal needs have been met, her external goal has not. And though she writes a letter or two to Nettie, she makes no other efforts to reunite with her. She's accepted her new normal.
🟢 The Redirection surfaces a new theme - forgiveness. Celie has cursed Mister -”Till you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble.” So, Mister sets to do right by Celie. It is because of his actions that we journey through the rest of the film.
🟢 Climax - Celie has forgiven Mister. It is evident that he has suffered the consequences of his treatment of her and he is a changed man.Though, we didn't cover it because we're focused on the A-story, Shug is also forgiven by her Father. Celie is reunited with Nettie and her children. We know this to be the climax and not when Celie stands up against Mister because it is in this scene where the external goal is reached. The reason the film seems longer than necessary is because Celie leaving Mister feels like the climax. But there is so much more story to tell after that scene. We get to continue on Celie's arc to true fulfillment. That doesn't occur until her external goal is met.
🟢 Resolution - Because of Celie's journey through sisterhood and forgiveness, she knows there is a God. Short. Sweet. A Beautiful song is sung. The end.
P.S. I cried at 3 parts in this film.
INSPIRED BY THE ANALYSIS?
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