On December 18, 1985 Alice Walkers Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was released as a full-length feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. The all-star cast included Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg, just to name a few. Rae Dawn Chong played Mary Agnes aka “Squeak”, the mousy-voiced girlfriend of Harpo (played by Willard Pugh) after he gets left by Sophia. It was a watershed moment for Black actors in Hollywood.
“It was a pretty popular audition. At the time were not many Afrocentric films so it was an event. Plus it was Spielberg,” she remembers. “I read the book right when it came out. It was a pretty big sensation. Not much fiction gets written about us so it’s important to read it.”
In celebration of its 25th anniversary and Blu-Ray release on January 25, 2011 Rae Dawn Chong shares some candid thoughts and memories about making the film and what kind of progress we’ve made since.
I auditioned specifically for Squeak because she was the only one that was mixed. I liked the fact that she was a hero and went to the jail to rescue Sophia. In the book she gets raped by the jailer but they cut it in the movie. They were really nervous about the movie so they created that churchy musical for Sug. That was an added piece to spice up the film. It was a bone of contention for me because I may not have been interested in the movie because there was no part for me after that. I’m on the periphery of the film. It wasn’t a step up for me.
I had to raise my voice a bunch of octaves [but] I can sing. I’ve been a singer my whole life so I can make my voice do a lot of things. I’ve played a cave woman. In “Quest For Fire” I had a really high voice so it was nothing.
Getting punched by Sophia:
“I learned a lot about stunts. That was me. I did the fall. It added levity. When the movie starts to get really intense it cuts away to a chicken or a chicken coup. They were concerned that it was being too heavy so they added things like Squeak falling into a hole, which is just physically impossible. If you read the books it might have made you question the motives but people love the movie.”
On the current state of Black films:
I’m sort of appalled that we’re not further along and segregated in the community. The film community is relegated to the BET network and that’s it. We’re tokenized still. In films it’s Tyler Perry and Spike Lee occasionally. Not many strides have been made. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a narcissistic business. The writers and directors aren’t integrated in their personal lives [so] why woud they be professionally? It’s great that we have a movie like Precious, but is that our only story? It’s frustrating. It always has to be the “other.”
Up coming projects:
I have three movies; The Blood of Pegasus on Sy Fy playing Mayda the witch, Jeff Who Lives At Home and I just finished a movie called Shiver where I play a detective.
How do you feel about the current state of Black films and Black Hollywood? What was your experience like when you first saw The Color Purple? Name your favorite Black actor or actress.