Times Staff Writer

They are, from left to right on the couch in front of you, TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Ashanti princess Akosua Busia and born-again singer Margaret Avery. They are the actresses of “The Color Purple,” minus Whoopi Goldberg, and no matter what anyone says or writes about the movie--no matter what you, white guy with the pointed questions, think--they are proud of it.

They know about the protests from black groups, who believe that the film promotes racial stereotypes about the black family, that it specifically portrays black men as incorrigible wife and child abusers.

They’ve read the reviews by film critics who have excoriated director Steven Spielberg for taking Alice Walker’s complex Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and turning it into a slick, one-dimensional commercial entertainment.


They even acknowledge having been concerned about some of these things while the movie was being made.

But all three argue that Spielberg preserved the greater social issues of Walker’s novel and, more importantly, did it in a way that would assure a broad audience.

“In all honesty,” says Busia, who plays Celie’s sister Nettie, “there were moments when I thought, ‘Come on, Steven, how cleaned up is this going to be?’

“I argued with him at one point about the opening (the book opens with 14-year-old Celie being sexually abused by the man she thinks is her father; the movie opens on a field of flowers). He said, ‘Look, you can’t lose the audience. If we started the way the book starts, people would walk out.’ He’s right.

“We have to face it. This movie needed to be made and seen. If it had been made by a black director, me and maybe Margaret and Oprah would have seen it in an art theater somewhere and nobody else would have heard of it.”

Before the other two speak up, and they will, let’s set the scene.

We’re in Winfrey’s suite in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It is the day of the Golden Globe Awards and Winfrey, a Chicago TV talk-show host whose debut film performance as the headstrong Sofia in “Purple” has earned her a nomination as best supporting actress, has just flown in to attend.

Busia, the daughter of an Ashanti chief who was also prime minister of Ghana in West Africa, just arrived from the East Coast to do publicity for the movie. Avery, the veteran actress who plays blues singer and reformed vamp Shug Avery in “Purple,” lives in here.

The three, who had not met until they began work on “Purple” last year in North Carolina, were seeing one another for the first time in more than a month and the reunion, with the three of them in a noisy knot shrieking and hopping around the room, might have knocked glasses over in the restaurant six floors below.

Throughout the interview, the three women talked more to one another than to the reporter. It was their first get-together since the movie opened and there was a lot of catching up to do. There was the shock that each of them felt at the controversy stirred up by the film, and there were the personal observations.

“I have to share this with you,” Avery said, turning to her friends and taking their hands. “As a black woman in Hollywood what this has meant to me: In ‘The Color Purple,’ Shug Avery gave Celie a sense of self-worth. ‘The Color Purple’ has given Margaret Avery a sense of self-worth.”

Avery went on to explain how she was on the verge of giving up her acting career and had actually started taking typing lessons--thinking she would become a court reporter--not long before landing the Shug Avery role.

“Now as an artist, I can appreciate what this movie means to people. They seem to be so grateful.”

“It’s true, they want to touch you,” Busia added. “Everybody I talk to--the black men in particular--want to say how much they cried and loved the movie.”

The serious moments in this interview were short-lived. When Avery reached the climax of her career-crisis story, describing a moment when she looked into the casket at an aunt’s funeral and felt joy--"like she was saying, ‘I’m OK; you’re OK. Go call your agent,”'--Winfrey and Busia howled with laughter.

Then all three began repeating the line, as if it were a chant:

“I’m OK; you’re OK. Go call your agent.”

When Winfrey volunteered that, as a first-time actress, she had been “terrified” during the filming and intimidated by Spielberg, Busia and Avery teamed up, imitating the robust and outgoing Winfrey’s husky voice with mock terror: “I’m so terrified. Look out, everybody, here I come, and I’m scared out of my wits!”

With the asides edited out, there were moments of sincere reflection by each of the actresses, all of whom acknowledged understanding beforehand that these were potentially career-making roles. They’re all deeply religious, too, and recalled the specific prayers they think may have gotten answered.

“God has been working with these three women, let me tell you,” Winfrey said.

The actresses come from widely varying backgrounds, and they were drawn to the issues and characters in the book for different reasons.

Winfrey grew up being shuttled back and forth between her father, a middle-class businessman in Mississippi, and her mother, who lived in a Milwaukee ghetto. She went to Tennessee State College, majoring in speech and drama, and followed a television career to Chicago where she has a Phil Donohue-format talk show.

She says she was sexually abused by a cousin when she was 9 and by an uncle when she was 13, and was immediately moved by the elements of sexual abuse in the book.

“That’s what we should be talking about,” Winfrey says. “If this film is going to raise some issues, I’m tired of hearing about what it’s doing to the black men. Let’s talk about the issues of wife abuse, violence against women, sexual abuse of children in the home.

“What the book did for me, and what the movie is doing for other women who were sexually abused, is pointing up that you’re not the only one.”

Busia, who was educated in private schools on three continents and trained as an actress at a London drama school, acknowledged that she knew nothing about the black experience in the American South when, at the urging of her older sister, who teaches at Rutgers University, she read “The Color Purple.”

“First, I connected with the love between the sisters,” Busia says, in her clipped British accent. “If we’re in the same house together and I get in the bathtub without her, she says, ‘Oh, you’re having a bath,’ like I had just betrayed her.

“Also, the experience of women in Ghana is not so different from the women in the South, and the attitude toward children--to fetch and serve and be in the marketplace--is similar.”

Avery, raised in San Diego by a career Navy man, went to the UC Berkeley, and has been singing and acting for 15 years. She appeared briefly in a Spielberg TV movie, “Something Evil,” 14 years ago, uttering one word: “Freckles.”

She read Walker’s book at the urging of actor friends, and said she was drawn immediately to Shug, probably because the character’s openness and self-confidence were missing in her own personality.

“Playing her changed my life,” Avery says. “I am less selfish, less me-oriented. I am more sensitive to people out there.”

The three actresses said they were surprised at the protests against “Purple,” and some of the criticism leveled against Spielberg. They said they think the protests are coming from a small segment of racial watchdogs who are missing the movie’s positive points.

“Every time there is a play or movie with white people in it, they don’t expect them to represent the history or culture of the race,” Winfrey says. “We aren’t trying to depict the history of black people. It’s one woman’s story, that’s all it is.”

“Once the film industry opens up and actors are just actors, not by color,” Avery says, “then one film won’t be burdened with the responsibility of having to represent the people. If we have several movies going, showing different images, we’re not going to get this crap, I don’t think.”

All three said they were concerned at first about Spielberg’s scaling down of the lesbian relationship that exists in the book between Shug and Celie. In the movie, there is only one intimate scene between the characters, and though it ends with Shug kissing Celie on the mouth, not everyone agrees on its significance.

“People who want to know what that was know what it was,” Busia says. “People who want to deny it from their minds can deny it. The movie is not the book. It is not as heavy on some subjects as the book is. But in making those choices, he (Spielberg) broadened the audience.

“I wasn’t sure which way I would like the balance. In retrospect, I think this way because it will make an awful lot of people go buy the book and they can get it (the deeper meanings) there. People are less embarrassed reading than sitting there watching it on a screen.”

Says Avery: “My feeling is that if you’re going to make a movie, you must trust the director. I trusted him totally and I’m very proud of what he did.”