Revenge is at the heart of “Promising Young Woman.” Not only does the film open with its main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) targeting men who take advantage of inebriated women, but we soon realize that she does so in service of a larger goal: avenging the rape, and eventual suicide, of her best friend, Nina. Even though she ultimately appears to get justice, this result is far from gratifying. Rather, it is a sobering reminder that because most rape victims will never see their assailants held accountable in their lifetime, revenge, or at least the fantasy of it, is all that is left.
To me, the movie is an example of how the #MeToo movement has influenced representations of sexual assault onscreen. Works like Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special “Nanette” and Michaela Coel’s breakout HBO show “I May Destroy You” center the voices of rape survivors, while movies like “The Assistant” and “Promising Young Woman” show the perspective of friends or female bystanders who also suffer as secondary victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, even as the embrace of these points-of-view represents progress, these narratives also reflect a real-world legal system that repeatedly denies or delays justice to rape victims.
As both a critic and as a feminist activist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this dilemma. And over the past two years I have been working on the book “In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece,” about Alice Walker’s groundbreaking novel that prioritized the vantage point of a rape and domestic abuse survivor named Celie. Through the redemptive arc of its antagonist, Albert, “The Color Purple,” from 1982, paved the way for today’s debates about atonement, rehabilitation and forgiveness. It anticipates the extralegal practice of restorative justice, a remedy that is intended to heal victims as well as prevent the accused from reoffending by having them accept full responsibility for their actions, while also engaging in a consensual, reparative process with their victims.
When I began my research on “The Color Purple,” a story that I first read at 15, I knew that I would focus on Celie’s relationships with her sister, Nettie, her bawdy blues woman lover Shug and the defiant Sofia. Those are the Black female characters that I have turned to as I struggled with my own sexual assault as a teenager in the 1990s, the ones I highlighted to my students as a young college professor in the early 2000s, the ones I find renewed inspiration in today.
But what I did not expect to find was how much my middle-aged self would be drawn to Albert, the figure Celie fearfully refers to as M______ (Mister) for most of her life. Celie is forced by Pa — who has raped and impregnated her and given away her two children — to marry Albert, a much older widower. When Celie joins Albert’s family, he continually beats her as she raises his children and tends to his house. It is only over time that we realize how broken he is, defeated both by Jim Crow and his domineering father, who prevented him from marrying his life’s love, Shug. In other words, while his rage is never justified, the novel seeks to understand its origins, giving it a powerful story line that was often initially overlooked by the novel’s biggest detractors.
Though “The Color Purple” earned Walker a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel also generated much criticism, mostly from well-known Black male writers and community activists who were offended by the depiction of abuse by Pa and Albert and by Celie healing from that violence in a romantic relationship with Shug. By the time the movie debuted in 1985, Walker and the filmmakers were ill-prepared to defend themselves against accusations that the movie reproduced vicious stereotypes about African-American men. Such condemnations overlooked the healing made possible by Albert’s own desire to make amends.
After Celie discovers that Albert has been hiding Nettie’s letters from her for decades, she leaves with Shug, and curses Albert.
Soon Albert’s life — his farm, his home, his family — fall apart, forcing him to make a critical decision: either crumble or find a way to reconcile with Celie. And so he rises to the occasion, and begins the long journey of repairing his relationships with his son and grandchildren, and in time, Celie and her children.
Albert’s arc, however, was far more abbreviated in the Oscar-nominated movie, in which he was indelibly played by Danny Glover. But even with his limited transformation onscreen, I see Albert anew when I watch the movie now.
Glover imbued his character with such charisma, dignity and depth that Albert is neither pure villain nor a blameless victim. Instead, he is a Black man at a crossroads and thus has the opportunity to reimagine what paths of masculinity lie ahead.
But Walker’s vision of Albert was realized in the musical adaptation that premiered on Broadway in 2005 and even more fully in a in 2015 with Isaiah Johnson in the role. In that version, Albert’s breakdown is even more totalizing, making his turnaround all the more meaningful, and memorable.
“Albert gets his redemption and he does something,” said John Doyle, the director of the Tony-winning revival. “He does things for the children of the community and maybe that’s all a little through a pink gauze. But there’s something wonderful about that.”
These days as we, on college campuses, in the halls of Congress, or in our homes, argue about how best to forgive or punish those who have harmed others, we often miss a crucial aspect of the debate that might help us move forward.
How does one actually atone for violence they inflict on others?
Given pervasive racial bias in the criminal justice system, it makes sense that Black women, like Walker, have imagined accountability outside of the courtroom. Among recent #MeToo narratives, “I May Destroy You,” created by the Black British artist Coel, gestures to restorative justice through the relationship between Arabella (Coel) and fellow writer Zain (Karan Gill). After he removes his condom without her consent during sex, Zain is later able to earn her begrudging trust by helping her complete her book, which in turn leads to her journey of self-acceptance and rebirth.
But then Zain revives his own writing career under a pseudonym. Albert embarks on the much more arduous path of acknowledging his violence and all the harm that he caused.
And in the final moments of “The Color Purple” onstage, his hard work leads to him standing together with his family. He is not a hero — that status belongs to Celie, Shug and Sofia — but he still gives us a reason to hope.
Because most survivors of violence will never hear an apology or benefit from such restitution, Albert remains one of the more elusive and exceptional characters in American culture, a figure that can teach us all to take accountability for our actions, and to find redemption along the way.