The Color Purple: Then and now
THE COLOR PURPLE, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, 1985
It’s no surprise that The Color Purple is an astounding film, given it’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker. Marrying the coming-of-age genre with an unwavering eye on generational trauma, sisterhood, and the atrocities Black women faced in the early 1900s. Steven Spielberg‘s celebrated adaptation follows Celie, a young Black girl growing up in Georgia, and the many women who help her survive one hardship after another.
Part of what makes the 1985 movie so affecting is its seminal cast, many of whom had their breakthrough roles in The Color Purple and went on to successful careers in show business and beyond. The film received a whopping 11 Oscar nominations — including nods for Margaret Avery, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey — it failed to win any. (It did, however, tie the record set by 1977’s The Turning Point for the most Oscar nominations without a single win.) That doesn’t make the film any less beloved.
See what else the impressive cast has accomplished since The Color Purple‘s release nearly four decades ago.
Oprah Winfrey (Sofia)
Akosua Busia, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rae Dawn Chong on the set of “The Color Purple”. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images); LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 26: Oprah Winfrey attends the Los Angeles Red Carpet Premiere Event for Hulu’s “The 1619 Project” at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on January 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto Rodriguez/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images)
Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis; Alberto Rodriguez/GA/Getty
When The Color Purple debuted in 1985, Oprah Winfrey was on the cusp of transitioning from a regional powerhouse to a national mega-success, with her syndicated TV show taking the country by storm in September of the following year. But before she became the all-powerful Oprah, she got attention for her performance as the steely but tragic Sofia — her first-ever movie role that garnered her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination right out of the box.
Soon after, Winfrey was well on her way to becoming one of the most influential TV talk show hosts of all time (and maybe the first TV influencer). Adoring fans of her popular program listened to almost anything she said or did. Everything she endorsed succeeded. In addition to more acting jobs and her smash-hit show, she launched a branded, glossy monthly magazine called O, the Oprah Magazine (featuring a fashionable Winfrey on the cover each month), which was published from 2000 to 2020 (and has since transitioned to digital).
Although her talk show ceremoniously ended in 2011, Winfrey has managed to reign supreme over the years, interviewing major players in a series of specials, acting in films like The Butler and Selma, producing and writing projects through her production company Harpo (named after her character’s husband in The Color Purple, which also happens to be her name spelled backward), creating the Oprah Winfrey Network (a.k.a. OWN media), and even serving as a WW (the company formerly known as Weight Watchers) spokesperson. Let’s just say, she’s managed to conquer broadcast and print journalism, marketing, and acting.
Whoopi Goldberg (Celie Johnson)
Whoopi Goldberg wearing a hat, scarf, coat and gloves in a scene from the film ‘The Color Purple’, 1985. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images); NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 01: Whoopi Goldberg attends the premiere of “Till” during the 60th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on October 01, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for FLC)
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty; Jamie McCarthy/Getty
When it comes to professional accomplishments, Whoopi Goldberg could give Oprah a run for her money. Not only is she an EGOT winner (she has an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony to her name), but Whoopi makes headlines almost daily thanks to the fact she’s not afraid to speak her mind as one of the outspoken hosts of the long-running daytime talk show The View.
Goldberg — who was a stand-up comedian when she was cast in The Color Purple — did not win her Oscar for playing the resilient protagonist Celie, but for her role as the wise-cracking psychic Oda Mae Brown in the 1990 film Ghost. Her popularity only grew from there, as she starred in films such as Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986) and Sister Act I and II, reportedly for major coin. Then came a return to her live audience roots, but this time as an actress on Broadway, with Goldberg appearing in revivals of A Funny Way Happened on the Way to the Forum and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and producing the classic musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, the latter of which earned her a Tony.
These days, the comic turned actress turned talk show host spends most of her time at her home in New Jersey, doting on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (yes, her only daughter is now a grandmother!).
Danny Glover (Albert a.k.a. Mister)
Danny Glover stands while sweating in a scene from the film ‘The Color Purple’, 1985. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images); MONTE-CARLO, MONACO – JUNE 17: Danny Glover attends the opening ceremony during the 61st Monte Carlo TV Festival on June 17, 2022 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty; Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty
As Celie’s abusive husband, “Mister” deservedly didn’t meet a favorable end in The Color Purple. But Danny Glover, the actor who portrayed him, would thankfully move on to a more favorable future. Glover’s career got a real shot in the arm in the late ’80s and ’90s thanks to the Lethal Weapon movies, playing Mel Gibson‘s partner in the hit buddy cop movie series.
After appearing in a multitude of popular films such as Predator 2 (1990), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Saw (2004), and Dreamgirls (2006), Glover eventually turned to smaller movies, TV series, and documentaries. He also got more heavily involved with civil rights activism, humanitarian aid, and political causes domestically and abroad, devoting time to protests, founding theaters, and joining committees.
For his valiant efforts, the actor was the 2022 recipient of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, along with many other artistic and charitable accolades through the years. Glover did take time from more serious doings to appear in the stellar, surreal comedy Sorry to Bother You (2018) and the affecting drama The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).
Margaret Avery (Shug Avery)
Margaret Avery is rebuffed in a scene from the film ‘The Color Purple’, 1985. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images); LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: Margaret Avery attends the 28th Annual NAACP Theatre Awards at Millennium Biltmore Hotel on June 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty; Amy Sussman/Getty
No one blinks an eye today at the kind of vivacious, confident woman Margaret Avery portrayed in The Color Purple. In a film full of sadly downtrodden Black female characters, Shug stands out thanks to Avery’s spirited portrayal of the sultry blues singer. Though seemingly self-centered and superficial, Shug is ultimately the one to help Celie come out of her shell and realize her own self-worth.
In retrospect, there should have been many more roles for Avery following the film’s success. Though she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, Avery didn’t work for two years after The Color Purple’s release. Fortunately, she took the journeyperson’s route and still acts today. In the decades that followed, Avery has racked up quite a list of smaller roles in TV and movies including Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, the BET series Being Mary Jane, and guest roles on Grey’s Anatomy, Better Things, and The Neighborhood.
Willard E. Pugh (Harpo Johnson)
Willard Pugh as The Color Purple’, 1985.
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty Images;
After portraying Harpo — Mister’s son and Sofia’s husband, who fails at trying to tame his feisty, headstrong wife — Willard E. Pugh had a steady stream of roles on TV and in movies such as 227, NYPD Blue, and Air Force One, as well as a memorable turn as mayor Marvin Kuzak in Robo Cop 2. In the early ’90s, he also taught broadcasting and film classes at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
While his IMDb page lists his last movie credit as Da Bottomz in 2021, Pugh’s had a long-time non-SAG hustle. When not pursuing acting roles, he works as a probation officer (and has for the last 20 years).
Rae Dawn Chong (Squeak)
Rae Dawn Chong in a scene from the film ‘The Color Purple’, 1985. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images); HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 04: Actress Rae Dawn Chong attends The 37th Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival Opening Night at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on November 04, 2022 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images)
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty; Desiree Navarro/Getty
For a time in the 1980s, actress Rae Dawn Chong was an It Girl of the silver screen. The daughter of comic actor Tommy Chong (yes, of Cheech and Chong fame) starred in a bunch of youthful rom-coms, genre flicks, and action movies (American Flyers, Choose Me, Commando, and Soul Man, anyone?). All these highlights led up to and after her turn in The Color Purple as “Squeak,” a.k.a. Mary Agnes, a meek young woman who finds her voice and comes into her own over the course of the inspiring film.
Like Fishburne, whether by choice or by necessity, her roles were inconsistent, (even by acting standards) from leads in experimental, arthouse movies to smaller parts in mainstream, populist fare. The same year that Purple was released, Chong appeared as the sexy love interest in Mick Jagger‘s “Just Another Night” music video. She would later meet her second husband, C. Thomas Howell, while filming Soul Man, and has continued to work steadily in movies and television since, with recent runs in Impeachment: American Crime Story and the new Interview With the Vampire TV series.
Laurence Fishburne (Swain)
The Color Purple (1985) Laurence Fishburne and Margaret Avery in The Color Purple (1985)LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 18: Laurence Fishburne attends the World Premiere Of Netflix’s The School For Good And Evil at Regency Village Theatre on October 18, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)
Credit: Warner Bros.; Charley Gallay/Getty
Laurence Fishburne started out his career appearing in plays and on the popular daytime soap opera, One Life to Live, as a child actor. In his teens, he scored the part of the young soldier “Mr. Clean” in Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1979 esteemed war film Apocalypse Now. He also had roles in minor films such as Death Wish 2 and in big-budget projects like Cotton Club. So he wasn’t a novice when he took on the role of Swain — Harpo’s musician friend who helps him build the juke joint — in The Color Purple. Though it was a smaller part, it was a solid addition to his impressive résumé, which has continued to grow over the years.
Fishburne flexed his acting chops in blockbusters like 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, was the first Black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello on film, and earned an Oscar nomination (for his portrayal of Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It), but it was his role as hacker Morpheus in the Matrix movies that really put him on the map with moviegoers. Throw in his performance as Bowery King in the John Wick franchise, as well as standout roles in several superhero films, and you’ve got the epitome of badass acting! Still, the chameleon actor returned to his TV roots to executive produce and star in the Black-ish, Mixed-ish, and Grown-ish franchises as Pops.
Akosua Busia (Nettie Harris)
Desreta Jackson watches Akosua Busia smoke a pipe in a scene from the film ‘The Color Purple’, 1985. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images); NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 12: Actress Akosua Busia attends the 70th Annual Tony Awards at Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty; Jim Spellman/WireImage
Who can forget Nettie running alongside the train in The Color Purple? It’s an emotionally riveting scene, putting Celie’s younger, headstrong, and wildly smart sister (portrayed by Akosua Busia) at center stage. Busia, whose father was once prime minister of Ghana, had already had several small parts on TV shows like Knight Rider and The Fall Guy when she landed her breakthrough role as Nettie.
After The Color Purple, Busia continued to pop up in films, including 1986’s Native Son (alongside Oprah once again) and 1997’s Rosewood, directed by John Singleton. Singleton and Busia married in 1996 and became parents to daughter Hadar before divorcing the following year. Busia wouldn’t do another movie until the 2003 war drama Tears of the Sun, with the actress reportedly taking time off to raise her only child.
In the ensuing years, Busia stepped away from the limelight to focus on writing. She penned The Seasons of Beento Blackbird: A Novel; part of the screenplay for the 1998 movie Beloved (also starring Winfrey and adapted from the book by Toni Morrison); and the song “Moon Blue” on Stevie Wonder‘s 2005 album A Time 2 Love. She also directed a film about her late father’s life. In 2016, Busia returned to acting, appearing in both the Off Broadway and Broadway productions of Danai Gurira‘s play Eclipsed with Lupita Nyong’o, for which Busia received an Obie Award. She currently resides in England.