Flowers For A Legend: Margaret Avery, "The Color Purple" Icon
Updated: Nov 5
Summer of 2022, I had the pleasure of interviewing the beautiful “The Color Purple” actress, producer and activist, Margaret Avery. Many of us know her from her iconic role as Shug Avery in the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. With a career that spans over four decades, Miss Avery has paved the way for so many young actresses. Geaux Queen has been honored to have had the pleasure to give Ms. Avery her flowers and learn more about her amazing journey. Here is an excerpt from our video interview.
This is such a special interview. We all know you from your iconic role with the classic “The Color Purple” as Shug Avery. As an executive producer and an actress, you have done so much. How are you doing today?
I'm feeling mighty blessed, mighty blessed. The last three weeks my generation has lost quite a few icons, so it makes you appreciate every day. Every day is a precious present.
Oh yes, definitely! You're right! We are losing so many icons, especially over the past few weeks. I just feel like it reminds us to give flowers while we can. So speaking of giving flowers, for people of my generation, “The Color Purple” was such a huge iconic film and especially your role as Shug Avery. At the time, did you guys have any inkling that this was going to be something that could potentially change your lives and become something that people would never forget?
We knew it was a special project and I think our most concern, all of the actors, was just to make Alice Walker pleased. I mean we just wanted to please her and it seemed as though anytime she was on the set—- and she was a few times, it seemed like it was a day that I was shooting! I'd say, oh my God please! After each shot, I kind of looked over at her to see if I could figure out if she liked it or not. We all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do our personal best. Just like athletes, you train and you hope when you get to that race, you are just pumping and trying to do your personal best. It was everyone's first film, really. Like Steven Spielberg—- it was his first dramatic film to direct. It was my first. Whoopi's first film of her three-picture deal. Oprah's first film, so we all had a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves and of course, we were all happy with the results.
Yes, it is an iconic film that we will never forget. Did you feel any pressure afterwards to follow up such an iconic role?
Well, I think right afterwards that's when we started. When people saw the film, I didn't expect the backlash that we got from our people. But I understand it now. You know, it was the first black film done in eight years. It followed “Sounder” with the lovely Cecily Tyson and the beautiful Paul Winfield. That was a very uplifting film of family love and you could see the strong husband and father image that we all universally love. “The Color Purple” was a little different and most people had not read Alice Walker's book to realize this is a fictional book. So when Color Purple came out, poor little Mister, it's just this hard horrible man and Harpo, he was weak without any other images of men of color.
And there was criticism about why Steven Spielberg, a white man, directed the film? Well, people don't realize that when Quincy Jones– who was the producer, shopped the film around the studios, nobody wanted to direct that film. Steven Spielberg was the only director who had the power to green light a film. He's the only one who decided to do it. We didn't have Spike Lee and John Singleton and all the wonderful women of color that are directing now, so we were lucky to even get the film done. The gay people, they bashed the film because we didn't have enough of the gay relationship between the characters Shug and Ceely. But the studios had asked Spielberg, can you make the film make money and he said well I don't know if I can make it make money, but I can probably make it break even. Well it would make a lot of money, but the reason he didn't want to explore that relationship— remember this was 35 years ago. So there were a lot of decisions that had to be made for the good of the film to just get done.
I know that women of color are more visible in the media now. You mentioned Taraji P Henson, Gabrielle Union, who you've also worked with. There are more women of color, Viola Davis and more, but I know in their conversations they still talk about some of the battles that they have to face even now. You've been in this game for such a long time! From your perspective, as an actress and a creator all this time, what have you noticed have been the differences from that time to now? I know like you said, there are more opportunities, but I know there's still some challenges too.
Most visual difference for me is when I step in the makeup trailer and I see people of color who are going to be dealing with me. They're going to be dealing with my makeup and have the right colors. I mean, we had to do our own makeup back then because if you look at the film credits, it was I think a man who did all the movie makeup. He didn't do it himself but his products or what they use. If they put their makeup on us, honey we would be looking all gray and I mean we had to do our own makeup. We had to bring our own wigs. They didn't know how to deal with our hair and they wouldn't let our people who could do what needed to be done. They wouldn't let them in the union so that they could do the film and help us and they weren't doing their research. They knew we were coming on the set. They wouldn't get the makeup and hair people. They weren't doing their research. It was up to us. The laws at that time, I don't know if they've changed, but if you got your cosmetology license whatever the hair license is when you go in to get that license you have to be able to do white hair not black hair. Now how fair is that? But black people, they would go in to get the license and they had to do everybody. I'm hoping that has changed, but to walk on the set and not be scared. Lord, what they're going to do to me today. I mean and even when I encounter a makeup artist who isn't on top of it, for what I need I at least have my makeup bag with me. And I can help that child, because it's me that people are going to be looking at.
You have such an extensive career. You’ve worked with so many legends. You've already mentioned a few, but to rename
some of them again: Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Pryor, Danny Glover, and so many more. What have been some of the most memorable experiences and relationships that you formed?
Well, I think that I'll always remember Richard Pryor. He was funny and sensitive and a very giving actor. He made me stretch because he didn't go by the script dialogue and you just had to hang in there with him. He made me appreciate my training. Improvisational theater teaches you to be the character and just go with it and that's what you had to do with him and it was so funny. I'm grateful for my recent film which was. “Block Party.” I got to do some comedy because that I mean that's the most comedy I've had the opportunity to do, probably in 45 years.
I mean that because I got stuck in drama and if you don't have control of your work, of what you're going to do, you just do the best you can with what's offered. I'm hoping that the future will allow me to do more comedy, as well as trying to move into producing. I’m co-producing a little film that's coming out. We hope within the next year we're trying to raise some money. For now it's written and directed by Robert Poole. I was one of the executive producers on Block Party. Being older, we don't get as many roles as the younger actresses. When you look at these films, the women are young. What I used to be. So rather than waiting for the phone to ring, I'm trying to get involved with other things. Hopefully this summer I'll be able to stretch back into my political activist role because I want to go to Atlanta and encourage young people to get out there and vote. This is a very important midterm election. I want people to know: don't get discouraged by all the rhetoric out there. They want you to be discouraged and not vote. You gotta get out there.
I know you mentioned from the physical aspect how we can heal with our bodies as part of your longevity. From the mental aspect, I talk about self-love a lot. Self-love, in my opinion, is the fuel on how we can be successful, how we can navigate our day, how we can manifest, how we can be who we are. So from your perspective, how do you define self- love and secondly, what are some additional things that you may do to cater to your mental health?
How do I define self-love? Well, for me, sometimes I have to stop feeling guilty because I take time out to do something for me when I know somebody else needs something. Sometimes I think it's a healthy selfishness to take care of yourself because if you're down, then how can you help someone else? So it's a thing back to balance in my life I have to continue to struggle with and work with because we as women we're kind of naturally caregivers. You know we're the one that take care of the birth of the child and the nursing and that's just in us so when you're struggling with self-care and trying to earn a living and putting food on the table and looking out for your children, looking out for your husband, looking out for your home, it is it's a challenge.
So going back to So going back to your career, what information or advice would you have for women of color &
aspiring actresses underneath you who are trying to break into this industry? You know they may find situations where they're not sure if this career is right for them or they may be struggling with low self-esteem or imposter syndrome.
Well for any actor, you gotta put up with a lot of rejection and some people are really rude. You've got to know that's really what you want and then you got to know your craft. If you look at the Viola Davises and the people who have really survived and made an impact in this business with their talent, they had training. They studied and they've done a lot of stage work. You've got to be able to support yourself while you're doing all this. It's very difficult but if it's your passion, you're going to find a way to do it. When I say passion, you're not getting into it to make a lot of money you want to be a star. That doesn't always happen for most. You can get excited if you get a couple of roles but to really make it a living at it. There was a long time that I wasn't working and I went with the LA Unified School District. I had a Master's in psychology, so I used it and prior to that I had been teaching school before I started pursuing acting. So I had a way of earning a living. I had a way of supporting myself getting into the business. It was challenging for me and very disheartening to not even be able to get a job after Color Purple. I said, oh Lord, please God show me a way and my way to survive was the college lecture circuit. that I was able to go to the different colleges and share my experiences my life experiences that um hopefully and it turned out that they could relate to and it inspired young people so that was another way of learning a living for me so it ain't all peaches and cream interviews can make it seem that way but honey there's a lot of s-h-i-t in this business. You better have your mind together, and self-confidence together. And have faith in God, because I know God carried me.
Is there anything else you'd like to leave us with? You've given so much already in this conversation!
Thank you. What would I say? You know here I am, a grandma, and I feel like I have so many more challenges ahead of me. Like I said, I'm working, struggling on balance and taking care of myself each day. I just think if women just take time out stay close to God and find little ways to appreciate each day. Even though stuff coming at you and I know it's hard, because I've had those days. I remember looking in the trash can and all these wine bottles in my trash can. And then think to myself, you've been trying to drink yourself to sleep every night. That's how worried I was about what was going on in my life. I couldn't buy a job and every job that I got, it still didn't pay for my expenses. I was a mother and I had to raise my daughter. Thank God I had a daughter, because I had to get her to school every day and that got me out of bed. Not because I wanted to for myself, I had to do it for her. So I think we need to reach out for a support system so that we don't keep it all in because other people are experiencing the same thing and have girlfriends that are supportive, not negative. So I would say align yourself with some kind of a mentor and support group to help you soar because that's what God wants us to do—-- to be the best we can be and be happy.
Thank you so much! You're beautiful and just thank you for everything that you've contributed to represent us and all the work that you've done. Like I said, you're a very iconic person and I'm just honored that I've had a chance to be able to give you your flowers. We have lost so many legends so I'm very proud that I was able to give you your flowers and just thank you for everything that you've done to contribute to this industry.
Well thank you! I'm gonna smell your flowers today. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, it's been a pleasure.