by Guest Contributor SLB, originally published at Post Bourgie
I’ve never seen The Color Purple in its entirety. Oh, I’ve seen snippets here and there—enough that, if strung together sequentially, I’d have nearly 7/8 of the film before me. I’m only disclosing this because I’m fairly certain that The Color Purple will be raised in criticism of the discussion I’m about to open.
See, I’m about to talk about Whoopi Goldberg. And in my experience, no discussion of Whoopi Goldberg is ever complete without mention of her Revelatory Turn as Celie in The Color Purple. I mean… I get it. Whoopi was great as Celie and, for many, the cool points she earned as part of Spielberg’s formidable cast erased a multitude of Goldberg’s race-related “sins.”
But my earliest memories of Whoopi Goldberg have nothing to do with “Till you do right by me….” My earliest memory of Whoopi Goldberg is from an oft-forgotten ’80s gem called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I was seven when this film emerged, probably eight when I saw it on cable. On first viewing a few thoughts ran through my head:
- “Is that a woman or a man?”
- “Oh. That’s a lady. Who is this lady and where did she come from?”
- “Where’d she get that goofy name?”
- “Why aren’t there more Black people in this movie?”
- “What’s up with her hair?”
- “Why is she always waving her hands around all wild and wide like that?”
I was naive. I didn’t know what dreadlocks were when I was eight, didn’t know that black chicks and white dudes were allowed to hook up on movie screens, didn’t know that there were ways to be feminine on celluloid that didn’t involve the wearing of dresses, cosmetics or jewelry.
Needless to say: I didn’t get Whoopi Goldberg.
Because I knew nothing of her stand-up work, I had only the study of her films (aside from The Color Purple, of course) by which to shape an opinion of her. As time went on, she continued to befuddle me—as a bookstore owner/thief surrounded by an all-White cast in Burglar, as an au pair/Mammy figure surrounded by an All-White cast in Clara’s Heart, and as a flamboyant psychic helping her two, top-billed White co-stars find romance despite the grave in Ghost. But the more befuddled I became, the more attention I paid to Whoopi when I saw her onscreen.
I simply didn’t know what to make of her. I hadn’t yet known any Black women like her, who easily navigated all-White social circles and rarely dated within their race (onscreen and off), who rarely played into the stereotypes of traditional femininity but were near-constantly romantically linked, in spite of their system-bucking.
Occasionally, as I grew up, I’d overhear adults judgmentally murmuring about her. At the height of her ’80s popularity, words like “sellout” and “Mammy” and “shuckin’ and jivin’” were always wafting out of the grown folks’ conversations at my house, but I didn’t know then what any of that was about. I’d just remember her turn as a concerned professor in the Emmy-nominated episode of A Different World, where Tisha Campbell reveals her HIV status or I’d think of her performance in the film adaptation of Sarafina! and I’d shrug.
Whoopi was “Black enough” for me.
She was a staple of my childhood and whether or not she dated white men or relied on a broader brand of physical comedy than I typically laughed at didn’t really matter. Seeing her onscreen comforted me. She seemed smart, for one. Her voice sardonic, her lips smirking, she always looked like her whole Hollywood persona was an inside joke and, someday, she’d reveal that the joke was on her detractors. Continue reading