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Location, Lights, Action, Art

When The Color Purple came to visit

By Lu Huntley   •   Illustration by Gary Palmer

It begins with a surprise phone call.

In early January 1985, Bill Arnold, appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt as North Carolina’s first film commissioner, called my father, H. Harry Huntley, seeking permission to bring a guest to his Black Angus cattle farm in rural Anson County. The 650-acre property west of Rockingham on the other side of the Great Pee Dee River featured a double-pile, Greek Revival house with a two-story porch, circa 1835, known as the James Charles Bennett plantation house. Used by my father for storage after he purchased the land in the 1960s, the house was unoccupied, with no electricity or running water.

The guest that day was Kokayi Ampah, Steven Spielberg’s location manager. Later that month, an entourage of 14, including Spielberg, came to visit the farm to walk the land and see the house that would become the location for the movie made from Alice Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple, for which she won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Everything about this meeting was as secretive as a spy thriller.

My mother, Bettie, and my father played host to the Hollywood executives in a primitive cabin we call The Buddy House, a part of the property that remains in the family to this day. (My father sold the farm in the 1990s to a couple from Tennessee who completely renovated the James Bennett house and use it as their private residence.) Negotiations securing the use of the farm as the locale for the movie take place inside this rustic, cozy house, warmed by the rebricked double fireplace.

While The Buddy House never appears in the film, it played a vital role, becoming Spielberg’s command center. Once home to a schoolmaster in the late 1800s, it got its name from Buddy Teal, who lived there sometime before my father acquired the property. When Hollywood and crew take over, the primitive house becomes Mission Control. Spielberg has six additional phone lines installed. The dailies are viewed there, and a sizable catering outfit pitches its tent next to it for the actors and crew to take their meals. It’s a happening.

In that hot, muggy summer of ’85, the Black Angus farm is transformed. Epistolary novels — stories conveyed in letters — do not fit a conventional storyline, so an old carved piece of red cedar becomes a mailbox, the device that delivers the narrative in Walker’s tale as it spans 30 years in the life of Celie Johnson, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Those familiar with the movie may remember when the character of Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) retrieves mail from the mailbox at the same time a bad lightning storm blows in. Shug stops in her tracks when she discovers letters to Celie from Celie’s sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), postmarked from Africa. Shug realizes what has been going on. Albert, or Mister (Danny Glover), has been hiding Nettie’s letters. Shug and Celie discover the cache of letters under a loose floorboard. They begin reading them and piece together the story of Nettie’s life in Africa. Soon Celie pivots toward her truth. We see on the screen the metamorphosis of an abused female bearing unimaginable hardship to a knowing woman with her own desires and dreams.

The mailbox in Spielberg’s movie has a history of its own. Danny Ondrejko was the director’s greensman — the person on a film responsible for obtaining and taking care of anything green or natural on a set. My brother, Bill Huntley, kept a workshop on the farm where he made nature-carved wood sculptures. A gnarly piece of red cedar caught Ondrejko’s eye, and he wanted to know if Bill would sell it. Bill found it in Durham in the spring of ’72 on a walk in Duke Forest. The dead cedar was rooted in the creek bank, and Bill came back with his Disston D-23 crosscut handsaw, squared it off and carried it back to Anson County, where he mounted it on a board. Rather than parting with the piece, Bill told Ondrejko he could use it, as long as he returned it. It becomes the Johnson mailbox, the central prop, in the movie.

In a YouTube special about the making of the film, Spielberg explains how the mailbox becomes its own character, supporting the plot and assisting the transitions. Once the movie wrapped, true to his word, Onkrejko returned Bill’s Duke Forest find. As a thank-you, he gives my brother the postmaster’s (the character is named Mr. Huntley) authentic Rural Free Delivery government issue leather satchel. The old mailbox and mailbag have stayed with my brother ever since. Several years ago, it was plain the bag needed a little tender loving care, so I took it to JDR Leather Works near Whispering Pines, where the satchel with its fading insignia was restored by J.D. Rymoff, a spirited Marine veteran with a love for all things leather.

The first time we see mail delivery in the film, it’s by horse and buggy. The Color Purple, as motion picture, involves fitting anything and everything into a period drama spanning the years 1909 to 1947, including transitioning from horses to horsepower.

As a side note, my grandfather William Henry Huntley’s business in Wadesboro, the county seat of Anson County, began as Huntley Livery in the late 1800s. In 1914, as automobiles became more widely available, my grandfather and some friends took the train to Detroit and drove back early models for hire or to sell. Huntley Livery morphed into Huntley Motors. The business would survive for nearly a century, run by my grandfather, my father (until he acquired the farm) and my brother.

At some point Spielberg, or someone else, learned this part of Huntley family history. Though I do not know who decided to name the postmaster Mr. Huntley, the move from livery to automobile appears in the movie. In a town scene filmed in Marshville — one county over — a brick building in the background is identified as Huntley Livery, Motors and Service. In the foreground townspeople mill about in period dress; vintage wheels debut.

In fact, being on-site on the farm during the sweltering summer, I see all manner of antique autos. I still wonder how these got all the way out there in prime condition and where the beauties may have traveled from. But if I learned anything from the experience of the farm undergoing a complete transformation from a rather large Black Angus cow-calf operation to a full scale Hollywood movie set, let’s just say Hollywood gets what it wants down to the tiniest detail. It’s no surprise some cars in this movie possess movie star status of their own.

I know Grandaddy Huntley would have been in awe of the motorcar lineup. Anyone would. And there is that unforgettable moment when Celie leans out the back of a yellow 1935 Studebaker President Roadster, points two fingers, and up close tells Mister, “Everything you done to me already done to you.”

Shug tells Celie, “Get in the car.” Then Celie leans out farther and declares, “I’m poor, I’m black, and I may even be ugly, but dear God I’m here. I’m here.” And the Studebaker stirs up dust rolling down the long dirt driveway.

Another postal delivery twist happens when I first see the movie in a Charlotte theater and recognize the bells attached to the postmaster’s horse, jingling his arrival. In a later scene when the postmaster delivers by automobile — a 1936 Ford V8 Deluxe Tudor sedan — once again the bells are affixed to the front of the vehicle to signal the post is on the way. I originally found the bells at a Raleigh flea market in the 1970s and quite purposefully placed them on the back side of The Buddy House. Where the bells have ended up, who knows? They are now merely part of Buddy House lore.

The sequel to The Color Purple, will be in theaters this year. The original, nominated for 11 Oscars, left behind a stretch of road near Jones Creek now officially named Hollywood Road, a masterpiece of filmmaking and some rich family memories, bringing to mind a favorite Alice Walker quote: “Expect nothing; live frugally on surprise.”  PS

LuEllen Huntley, associate professor emerita from the UNCW Department of English, lives in Pinehurst. She is originally from Wadesboro, Anson County, N.C.