Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor attends the 27th annual SAGindie Actors Only Brunch at Sundance at Cafe Terigo on January 21, 2024 in Park City, Utah Source: Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie

Bisexual 'Color Purple' Actor Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor Criticizes 'Sanitized' Love Story in New Musical Film Adaptation

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.

The lesbian romance at the heart of "The Color Purple" was better represented in the new musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel, but Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who appeared in the film as "Mama" and who identifies as bisexual, says it still disappoints.

Ellis-Taylor blasted the "sanitized" depiction of the relationship between main character Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and glamorous singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), Entertainment Weekly reports.

" 'The Color Purple' is a book about Black lesbians," Ellis-Taylor said in comments to Buzzfeed, EW relayed. "Whether the choice was made to focus on that or not in the cinematic iterations of 'The Color Purple,' it's still a movie about Black lesbians."

The actor pointed out the difference between the centrality of the romance in the novel versus the barely-there hint in Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation and the much more fully realized relationship depicted in last year's musical, directed by Blitz Bazawule.

"Alice Walker wrote 'The Color Purple' with intention because she was writing about herself," Ellis-Taylor contended.

"I just want that part of the book to be portrayed in the films with intention," she added, "instead of it being incidental. I want people to walk away from 'The Color Purple' thinking, 'I just saw a movie about Black lesbians.' I don't think that has happened."

Spielberg's film barely featured a kiss between Celie (played by Whoopie Goldberg) and Shug (played by Margaret Avery), but, given the time, even that meek suggestion of a same-sex love was huge, as compared to modern filmmaking and how commonplace LGTBQ+ representation has become compared to four decades ago.

Saying that she first saw Spielberg's take "before I understood who I was," Ellis-Taylor recalled, "I knew that watching Margaret Avery kiss Whoopi Goldberg was astonishing, exciting, and affirming. It showed me the possibility of myself and the possibility to love a woman who loves me in return.

"I'll never get over that. It lives with me," Ellis0-Taylor told Buzzfeed, going on to say that when the new film version is discussed, the lesbian relationship isn't the main topic. "Why are we talking about it almost in a sort of incidental way?" the actor asked.

Walker, EW noted, commented on the new film's portrayal of the love affair between the two female characters in much more positive terms, saying to The Hollywood Reporter that viewers can now "take away the reality that Shug and Celie become lovers," and adding: "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."

But from Ellis-Taylor's point of view, the new film still "sanitized" the relationship. "What is hard for me is that when we have those spaces where we can honor the truth of that, we walk away from it," the actor told Buzzfeed. "We suppress it. We hide it. We sanitize it.

"In the sanitizing of it, someone like me – knowing that 'The Color Purple' is a book about Black lesbians – looks at that and thinks, 'You're sanitizing me and my friends, and other people who I love and adore. Why?'"

Said Ellis-Taylor: "People can try to say the story is about sisterhood, but it's a story about Black lesbians. Period."

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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