She’s since apologized, but when Elizabeth Banks accidentally omitted The Color Purple from Steven Spielberg’s filmography by claiming he’s “never made a movie with a female lead,” it caused a mild uproar online and for good reason. Not only did it call to mind erasure of black women in conversations about gender equality, it also ignored a film that’s been very important to black woman since its release. At the center of The Color Purple (based on a novel by Alice Walker) is a story about damaged women learning to heal through sisterhood, self-love, and exploration of black female sexuality. Offensively there’ve been very few similar films since, but summer comedy Girls Trip is a worthy successor to Spielberg’s film in many ways.
Much like with The Color Purple, the backlash to Girls Trip came prior to its release. Much of it has stemmed from men on social media who object to the way black women seem to be oversexualized in the film’s trailer. It calls to mind the type of criticisms that plagued The Color Purple in 1985. The film and Walker’s novel came out within three years of one another and were accused of damaging portrayals of black women by exploring lesbian relationships and a repudiation of black male patriarchy. At the time, prominent members of the black community like Spike Lee blasted the film—he said it was “done with hate” and hated the “one-note” portrayals of black men in the film. Granted, the film’s protagonist Celie is a survivor of incest who finds herself in another violent relationship, but men were never the point of Walker’s story. It was a celebration of women, their relationships, and the bonds they forge during oppression. It was also a damaging look at how a patriarchal society hurts black women the most.
All of this was lost on Lee as he released 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, his response to The Color Purple, which was intended to show a “very even look at relationships between black men and women.” For Lee, that meant a film about a woman who has sex just like the fellas that he surely meant as liberating, but instead ends with his protagonist Nola being raped and enjoying it. Years later, Lee admitted to regretting the rape scene: “If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally… stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is.” His admittance underscores the fact that Lee didn’t truly understand The Color Purple three decades ago. The idea that Lee wanted to portray men in a better light than the rapists and abusers of Walker’s story, yet included a positive spin on rape in his own work shows that despite his best intentions, She’s Gotta Have It was never really concerned with exploring female pleasure.
Girls Trip on the other hand, tackles the black female libido head-on by placing its women at the center of a raunchy, R-rated sex comedy. These types of films have historically been told from a male perspective, leaving women to be objectified (Girls Trip star Jada Pinkett Smith starred in one such film herself, 1998’s Woo). But here women are concerned with getting turnt, finding men with big dicks, and getting themselves off. As a comedy, it naturally doesn’t reach the dark recesses of The Color Purple, but it manages to explore several aspects of female sexuality during its two-hour runtime. Regina Hall’s Ryan Pierce is a woman in a picture-perfect celebrity marriage who has to tackle her husband’s infidelity. Smith’s Lisa Cooper is a divorcee who is reluctant to get back in the game, but is urged by her girlfriends to “clear out the cobwebs.” Queen Latifah’s Sasha Franklin is more concerned with work than sex during the film, but she doesn’t shy away from it either. Then there’s Tiffany Haddish’s Dina, who is a tour de force of sexual energy—she tosses out blowjob techniques, lusts after every penis she comes across, and even bares her breasts for Diddy at a concert.
The use of four women to depict different aspects of women’s sexuality isn’t new. It’s been used to great effect in sitcoms such as Living Single and Girlfriends, but those are almost distant memories—neither sitcom is on a streaming service and both are relics of networks that once catered to black viewers (Fox in the ’90s and UPN in the 2000s). These aren’t the kinds of women we’ve seen in the recent influx of raunchy, female-centered comedies either—those all star white women. From Broad City to Bridesmaids to Rough Night, white women have been allowed to explore their sexuality freely. Because while Hollywood barely considers women when they’re making films, the first women on their minds are always white. For black women, depictions of their sexuality are often left to films made by men that produce female characters who are cursed for their sexual desires in films like Addicted and Tyler Perry’s Temptation.
Thankfully, Girls Trip is concerned totally with black women because of Tracy Oliver, a black woman who penned the script with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. Then there's director Malcolm D. Lee, who has had a successful career since 1999's Best Man. Lee has mostly directed films starring men, but his popular Best Man franchise is incredibly underappreciated for how it tackles aspects of toxic masculinity, particularly in the friendship between Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut's characters, two black men who have been seen on screen crying with one another and being unafraid of sharing their emotions with each other. With Oliver playing a part in the creation of Girls Trip, it delivers a comedy that doesn't just want to make you laugh, but to make you realize that there are so many aspects of humanity that black people have to offer.
It all goes back to Banks' comments: the conversation around gender equality often centers white women and when black women are depicted, they're mired in the respectability politics of being faithful to a single man and no one else, or they're a sexually active jezebel punished for fulfilling her desires. When the latter character pops up in Girls Trip (the woman sleeping with Hall's husband), it's her duplicitous behavior that condemns her and not her sexuality. The rest of the female protagonists have as equally voracious an appetite for sex as she does. And a film that totally celebrates the black female body would never shame a woman who's gotta have it.