Is He Okay?

Purple Rain (1984)

illustration by Vanessa McKee

In 2018, I taught a high school elective titled “The MTV Triumvirate,” about the work of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. This provided me a chance to teach sociology through the works of artists who redefined our concepts of race, sexuality, and gender. I structured the units in reverse chronological order, meaning the Prince unit began with his death and ended with Purple Rain, his breakout album.

We watched the film, which required permission slips because Purple Rain is very R-rated. Even with parent signatures, when we reached the segment of the film where “The Kid” performs “Computer Blue/Darling Nikki,” I paused to ask each student their comfort level before letting them watch a shirtless, greased-up Prince simulate fellatio with his guitarist, sing about masturbation, and air-hump the stage. In this scene he shames his lover Apollonia for joining Morris Day’s pop group, making eye contact from the stage as he assaults her with the lyrics, calling her a slut.

One of the students turned to me and asked, “Is he okay?” with sudden concern, as if the character were a real person.

Naturally, a high school sophomore understood the difference between fiction and reality. But she had gleaned that The Kid was having a nervous breakdown. The sequence is powerful for that reason, and one of the darker moments in a pitch-black musical; it’s the moment when The Kid’s abusive tendencies infect his stage work. The film revolves around the dichotomy between his dysfunctional personal life and the effervescent live performances that made Prince an instant star upon the film’s success.

Were “Is he okay?” a question afforded Black men, George Floyd and many others would still be alive. Black mental health is rarely treated with the respect shown in Purple Rain. This failure to consider Black lives in all their complexity contributes to the overall dehumanization of Black Americans, the violent and deadly repercussions of which are a sickeningly familiar story.

As part of his contract with Warner Bros., Prince demanded a movie among many favorable concessions from the studio. Trusted with creating this fictional origin story, Albert Magnoli zeroed in on the Byronic image the artist had been cultivating since his 1980 LP, Dirty Mind. (The correlations between Prince’s actual biography and Magnoli’s film are slim.) In “creating” Prince, Magnoli went straight to trauma, writing The Kid as a tragic mulatto. Offspring of a failed marriage between a Black father and a white mother, The Kid relates to whiteness with a mix of attraction and revulsion; his relation to Blackness is even more toxic, as every Black male in the film is antagonistic towards him, disgusted by his “softness.” Coded as queer, he appreciates pretty things that evoke childhood nostalgia. His skewed concept of masculinity leads him to groom, abuse, and discard women. He is a lonely, self-hating narcissist tortured by paranoia, seemingly destined for a tragic end.

Or, as I told the students, Purple Rain is a movie where Prince plays Michael Jackson.

The fictional biopic certainly changed my perspective the first time I saw it on VH1; long before antiheroes became standard in popular media, it was uncommon to watch a movie with an unlikable protagonist. Magnoli is selling the idea of Prince more than the man himself; the musical savant ready to spread a message of love over a multiracial (and fictionalized) version of the Twin Cities music scene. Similar to Little Richard playing up his effeminacy to avoid being lynched for having white women at his shows—both in the audience and backstage—I wonder if Magnoli felt he could only sell this mysterious cult artist to Reaganites by deemphasizing his swaggering stage presence with a less threatening archetype, a male version of Sarah Jane from Imitation of Life. Whatever his reasons, his presentation of a mentally tortured artist who finds redemption was, for its time, a revolutionary presentation of the Black experience. 

Hollywood has traditionally been uninterested in the complexities of Black people. The shuck-and-jiving Topsy of the silent film era became Bill “Bojangles” Robinson teaching Shirley Temple to dance; then respectable Black heroes who triumphed over racism through dignified means; then antiheroes who violently triumphed over racism. By the time Purple Rain came out, the streetwise trickster played by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop acted as a hybrid racial hero and comic character. Few films went deeper than this. The most prominent example of an American film spotlighting the internal life of a Black protagonist is Diana Ross’ 2 ½-hour-long Oscar reel Lady Sings the Blues from 1972, in which Billie Holiday’s life is played for tragic melodrama.

From its exquisite opening montage, Purple Rain positions itself in the mental space of its hero. First Avenue is a New Wave utopia, integrated, where men and women alike beautify themselves in glittery makeup. This queerness extends to The Kid, first seen applying eyeliner in a mirror. The music is furious, the colors bright, the audience happy, and the smallest interactions erotically charged. (“So sexy,” Jerome Benton makes sure to tell The Kid before taking the stage.) Even The Time, the antagonists of the film, are integral to this world The Kid escapes to, “Jungle Love” the perfect background song as he silently romances Apollonia.  

The transition from First Avenue to the first scene featuring The Kid’s parents is whiplash-inducing. He pauses before entering the house to find his father shaking his mother in the dining room, man versus woman, Black versus white, the utopian dream shattered. When the father slaps him to the floor, The Kid goes from rock god to helpless child in the space of a minute, his purple trench coat a costume that fails to shield him from the darkness of the world. Every time I watch this scene, I can feel the real world come crashing down on him.

So he lashes out. Purple Rain is a story about misogynists, and about misogyny itself; hatred of women undergirds the film’s motif wherein Black men treat white women like trash, sometimes literally. There is deep-seated racial resentment to all the beatings, pranks, gaslighting, and insults. And unlike most Hollywood films, where actors ranging from Leonardo DiCaprio to Woody Allen portray misogyny as heroic, Purple Rain dares to make it a sign of weakness and disintegration, rooted in trauma.

Much of this rests on the relationship between The Kid and Apollonia. The famous “Lake Minnetonka” scene is pure anti-woman fantasy in which The Kid, having isolated Apollonia in a rural area, dismisses her as a fame-seeker. He takes advantage of her naiveté by convincing her to jump in filthy water, and having done so threatens to abandon her, alone and humiliated. That Apollonia seems charmed by his abuse reinforces the male fantasy at play.

However, Magnoli immediately deconstructs this in their next scene. When The Kid seduces Apollonia by playing a track of a woman crying, intimating he caused her sadness, they are in his basement bedroom. Magnoli sets the scene with closeups on a carnival mask, a clown doll, and a crystal pegasus. Photos of Hollywood actresses adorn the walls, showing diva worship. The Kid’s room is the sanctuary of someone seeking to express his femininity while at the same time avoiding adult responsibilities. Rather than establish Prince as a romantic lead, Magnoli uses the bedroom scenes to code The Kid (and by proxy, Prince) as queer. Nowhere is this more evident than when he gives Apollonia one of his earrings to wear, the scene staged more like two giggling girlfriends sharing jewelry than lovers. Magnoli presents The Kid’s treatment of women as a denial of his feminine side. Such in-depth psychology for a Black male character was uncommon at the time.

Purple Rain is one of few movies I know of that explores anti-Blackness in such a way that it does not become the focus of the film. White supremacist views are simply so illogical, and the violence perpetrated on Black people and their psyches so extreme, that the American version of racism is by its nature unsubtle. Magnoli finds subtlety by minimizing white people and maximizing the inner lives of Black men. (Except for the white-passing waitress played by Jill Jones, there are no Black women with speaking roles). 

All these characters are plagued by fear of failure. The club owner Billy Sparks has abandoned musical integrity for an obsession with making money off commercial acts. Morris sabotages his rivals to reach the top. For The Kid, the possibility of dying in obscurity looms like a bogeyman, a fate embodied by his father, Francis, who represents the previous generation of Black musicians, underpaid and erased at every junction while white cover artists like Elvis became stars. 

While Billy blames Francis for ruining his own career, in the scene where The Kid confronts his father following a particularly vicious beating of his mother, Francis is playing a piano ballad. In this way, Magnoli suggests he refused to “sell out” with party music, and, having denied the shallow expectations for Black artists, fell into obscurity. For that failure he has forgiven neither himself, nor the family he abuses.  

Around the midpoint of the film, Francis chases his wife to the basement, invading The Kid’s queer sanctuary with violence. When Francis slaps and gaslights his wife (“I could make you happy if you just believed in me”), the camera is fixed not on the white victim, but the disheveled alcoholic Francis, who speaks as if in a trance, tears in his eyes. Clarence Williams III plays the character as broken, left with no power except domestic violence, which in turn renders him more powerless. The pain of Black people, including psychological pain, has long been used as a means of titillating white audiences. Magnoli avoids this sensationalism by focusing on the psychological aftermath of Francis’ actions. When he tells his wife, “I would die for you,” we as the audience are meant to see beyond brutish stereotypes of Black men to the broken dreams beneath. 

Not one to waste time, Magnoli goes straight to the next scene where The Kid begins his downward spiral by slapping Apollonia (in his bedroom, of course). There is a reason why Oedipal stories persist in the popular imagination: as Western culture values individuality, there is horror in the idea of children reenacting their parents’ mistakes. This goes doubly so for the Black experience, in which every generation must endure the same apartheid and genocide forced on their ancestors, despite slavery being over, despite Black people being nominal U.S. citizens.

Because the actions of The Kid and Francis cannot be separated from the wider context of America, where Emmett Till was murdered for the thought of miscegenation. In targeting their white lovers for abuse, the men of Purple Rain exhibit suicidal behavior. If the movie had ended with a white lynch mob hanging The Kid for beating Apollonia, it would not have seemed a surprising narrative turn. The film situates itself in an integrated America where the increased presence of white people in the lives of the Black male characters exacerbates their self-destructive tendencies. Francis is reenacting the violence perpetrated against Black men for generations within the domestic sphere; in turn, his son also acts violently against white women, the most vulnerable people within the oppressor class.

The Kid’s treatment of Apollonia is an unhealthy combination of narcissistic grooming combined with a mental breakdown. Whatever Magnoli had originally intended when he wrote the girlfriend role for Prince’s protégé Vanity—a Black woman with acting experience—vanishes in the stilted scenes between Prince and Kotero, where they seemingly try and act around each other just to reach the end of the take. On-screen their relationship comes off as fetishism; a Black man love-bombing and devaluing a white teenager who looks conspicuously like a younger version of his mother. His decision to become a better boyfriend, scored to the irresistible melody of “I Would Die 4 U,” reads more as something he does for his own sake than hope for any life with her.

The most interesting interactions between The Kid and a female character involve his guitar player, Wendy. Unlike the shallow relationships with Apollonia and his mother, there is dynamism in that these two people do not like each other. They bond through their electrifying onstage chemistry, but their relationship is no less toxic than any in the film; he does not respect her as an artist, interested mainly in using her as eye candy. Wendy, a white lesbian, sees no conflict in demeaning him and then symbolically sucking his dick in front of a crowd. He gains power through proximity to her whiteness, and she gains power from his Black sexuality.

When she asks if he listened to the demo she recorded with the keyboardist Lisa, his dismissal of her, though rude and childish, is in line with how a creative visionary would react to someone requesting he change his vision. Coy at first, Wendy teams with Lisa against him, assailing him with increasingly personal insults. Notably the two white men in The Revolution—Bobby Z and Matt Fink, a pair of New Wave weirdos with little dialogue—never express their social power. The bass player Brown Mark, a Black male, stays silent through the film, entirely disempowered. Magnoli scores this scene to diegetic audio of Dez Dickerson performing “Modernaire;” the whole club rocking to his music, Dez represents the liberated black man in comparison to The Kid stewing in self-pity after a white girl has emasculated him. Wendy constantly undercuts her boss in service to her own needs, while showing no compassion for his personal problems. Positioning white power in the feminine, Magnoli establishes racism as a feminizing agent in Black male life. Every scene with Wendy reminds the audience The Revolution is mostly white; in pursuing social status, The Kid opens himself to oppression, and, like his father, seeks revenge on whiteness through violence.

Still, Purple Rain differs from many Hollywood films in that hatred of women, for whatever reason, is portrayed as unhealthy. The Kid’s ultimate reconciliation with Wendy is a far cry from climaxes of yore, when blaxploitation heroes would raise their gun of choice and blow Shelley Winters or Sid Haig to kingdom come. It is worth noting the most misogynist character is Morris, the villain of the piece. His desire to conquer women is in line with his treatment of The Kid, when, unable to beat him artistically, he zeroes like a vulture on his rival’s vulnerabilities. It was a boon to the film that Morris Day just happened to have charisma, and brings that energy to the club scenes, else Purple Rain might have been intolerable save for the musical performances. His sociopathic character is horrifying because he is actually funny and charming; he represents a Trump-like masculinity The Kid must reject for his own betterment.

Therein lies the core of Purple Rain: the psychological lives of Black men. What makes the film revolutionary, besides its sympathetic gaze, is that it positions music as a vehicle for redemption. In the American imagination, Black men can be killed, punished, or erased. But redeemed? That is a rare sentiment.

 Redemption is explored most deeply when The Kid confronts Francis following the vicious beating of his mother. Prince cannot sell the rage his erratic character is feeling; he was by nature a cool customer, and, when asked to summon the beatdown spirit of James Caan in The Godfather, Prince takes the piss out of the scene himself with a dramatic twirl that could only have been done to make the audience laugh. However, once The Kid finds Francis playing piano in the basement, Prince does the best acting of his cinematic career, having Clarence Williams III as the perfect dance partner to force him beyond artifice, to find something honest in a screenplay that fabricates his life story. To be fair, this is also the only scene wherein his character is written to have conflicting desires. Prince shows vulnerability asking how the mother ended up in such a state, his eyes accusing, but holding back out of consideration for the broken man at the piano. Francis asks him if he has a girlfriend, and The Kid’s voice cracks when he says yes, reduced to a child once more. 

But The Kid needs this moment, though he is unequipped for it. His rage bows before a need to absolve his father, and to be absolved himself. It is a pain steeped in the Black experience, the shackles on Black men when it comes to love. Francis, like my own father, probably saw beatings as tough love, a way to forge his son into a man capable of surviving America. And what does he get for the monumental achievement of raising a Black boy to adulthood? A fop with his head in the clouds, who hides in his room all day, who surrounds himself with white faces, who gets picked on by tougher-acting Black men. On top of it all, this ridiculous person is probably a better musician than Francis ever was, with avenues to success he never had.

So when The Kid earnestly asks Francis if he’s written down his compositions, Francis lies. “No, man,” he says, a cigarette in the quivering fingers he’s just used to bloody his wife. “I don’t need to write them down. That’s a big difference between you and me.” He makes no attempt to understand The Kid because he has given up hope, viewing his son as one more self-absorbed stranger in a life he finds intolerable.

Magnoli’s direction is straightforward in its symbology, cutting between Prince in light, then Williams in shadow. This marks the beginning of The Kid’s redemption, his attempt to get past the shared traumas that have rendered Morris an enemy, Brown Mark a lackey, Billy a soulless capitalist, and destroyed his father in every way. He seeks to bridge the generational gap through music, sampling Francis’ composition for “Computer Blue.” But the father cannot, will not hear him. The next time we see Francis, he shoots himself in the head.

Because the MTV Triumvirate were influential visual artists, my students spent a lot of time parceling how images illustrated the themes of their careers. They did this for the turning point in Purple Rain, when The Kid, having found the compositions Francis claimed to have never written, steps back from the brink of suicide. The students thought his shirtless chest represented the truth beneath the image. His cross necklace meant holy redemption. He falls asleep on his dad’s compositions, literally pillowed by music. He walks into a hallway flooded with morning light. He plays the piano, turning away from the movie’s Dolby Surround electronic fetishism to the purity of the acoustic.

All pretty obvious symbolism when you think about it. Not like that matters. The “revolution” of Purple Rain was filming a story in which a Black protagonist gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His pain is shown respect, his failures forgiven, and he discovers self-love through his own strength of character, coupled with the power of music. He will be okay.

Or will he? To the delight of sociopath Morris, The Kid embraces commercial music. (Different from the values of the real Prince, who in order to follow his vision purposefully sabotaged his career as a Top-40 pop star.) Wendy’s entitlement is validated when The Kid performs her song. The Jill Jones character, subtly portrayed throughout the film as The Kid’s other lover, is left in the cold with a jilted, “Hi,” rejected in favor of a lighter-skinned ethnic woman. And what of Apollonia? The final image of her with Prince in the basement is a pretty one, two people stripped of their rock star facades, kissing in civilian tank tops. But will they find love after the shallowness of their initial connection?

Such is the strength of Purple Rain. One-dimensional characters have interesting relationships with the more defined characters, and those characters in turn have hidden layers, the psychological drama told succinctly through music and visuals. In treating Black mental health with respect, and proving a market existed for such stories, Purple Rain opened the door for filmmakers like Spike Lee to create their own tales of angry, hurting, messy, hopeful Black characters. 

Obviously, America at large did not embrace the message of the film. The state-sponsored image of Black people in the 1980s was that of irresponsible savages doing drugs, leeching off government assistance, and giving each other HIV. The immediate social benefit of Purple Rain for Black people was to enable Prince and other select artists to become millionaires. It is an indictment of America that—even in a country where a film about Black mental health reached number one at the box office decades ago—that sensitivity toward the Black experience seems to extend no further than the arts.

“Is he okay?” Answers will vary. The important part—the human part—is the question itself.