#198 The Color Purple

(1985, Steven Spielberg)

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field and don’t notice it”

Steven Spielberg has appeared numerous times on this blog before, and based on what we’ve seen, many would be able to guess the types of films he makes – either over-the-top blockbuster movies (usually with a science fiction aspect) or movies about World War II – so it may come as some surprise to find that he once made a drama about the trials and tribulations of black women in the South.

Based on a highly-acclaimed novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is also Whoopi Goldberg’s first major movie role. She plays Celie Harris, a young black woman living in the South of the United States in the early 20th century, not really the best place and time to be a black woman, as the movie proves. Regularly sexually abused by her father from a young age, she ends up forced into a marriage to a wealthy widower named Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), who she just knows as “Mister”. After Albert cuts her off from her sister, Celie becomes withdrawn and subservient.

However, over time two stronger women enter her life. Albert’s son Harpo (Willard E. Pugh) marries an aggressive woman named Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) and Albert openly attempts to pursue an affair with jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), both of whom Celie develops friendships with. These two women have a profound influence on Celie, helping her to discover an inner strength she never had before.

I’ll admit that I thought I’d hate this movie. The little I knew about it made it seem like it was going to be a cloying “racism is bad” piece. However, I was met with a genuinely human movie that was handled in a way that I never expected. On paper the movie sounds ridiculous, since we have a well-known white male director covering the struggles of black women, but Spielberg pulled it off surprisingly well.

The Color Purple is long and slow, but it is well-paced with it. The movie wastes absolutely no time informing us of how bad Celie’s life is, since it opens with a very timid narration where Celie flatly tells us that her father has raped her on numerous occasions and that she’s had two children from it. This shocking opening pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie, since there is always a struggle for Celie or her friends at every turn. Even when things appear to get better, there’s always a sense that every silver lining has a cloud.

At times things can seem a little overbearing, with the movie trying too hard to be sentimental to make us feel sorry for Celie’s plight. Some things seemed unbelievable and others downright silly, but somehow the overall product holds together.

At the centre of all of this is Goldberg herself. I’m used to her work that followed this movie, where she’s known for being loud and fierce, so to see her here was a genuine surprise. She spends 95% of the movie being meek and subdued, and she played her part so well it was hard to see her as Whoopi Goldberg. She didn’t just play Celie, she was Celie, and this was what made everything else in the film fall into place.

As such, whenever Celie suffers, we feel sad, and when she eventually strikes out, it’s hard not to cheer at her success. Her joy in the later stages of the movie isn’t just happiness, it’s the kind of joy experienced by someone who’s never been allowed to experience joy in her life. Spielberg may have directed the movie, but it’s Goldberg who was really in charge.

The Color Purple isn’t perfect though. Aside from the aforementioned over-sentimentality and simplification of some of the central issues at times, there are moments where things feel poorly adapted from the original novel.

One major aspect was a hinted-at lesbian affair between Celie and Shug. The novel delves into this subplot in greater detail, and it feels like an afterthought in the movie. There are a handful of scenes which hint towards it, but they feel out-of-place and are unresolved, leaving whopping great plot strands flapping about. This should have either been greatly expanded or Spielberg should have just dropped the hinting scenes entirely.

There are also occasional issues with the score. Early on, after Celie has told us about the incestual rape she’d endured, the soundtrack immediately plays a jaunty soundtrack that feels far too happy. It’s not a persistent issue, as the score generally fits into place later on, but some of these earlier slip-ups do threaten to derail some scenes.

That aside, The Color Purple is a tear-jerker of a movie that, although simple at times, has a genuine heart and I have to applaud Spielberg’s efforts here. It surprised me, it moved me and it was a good, entertaining watch.

Starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Adolph Caesar & Rae Dawn Chong
Written by Alice Walker (novel) and Menno Meyjes
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall & Quincy Jones
Music by Quincy Jones
Cinematography by Allen Daviau
Edited by Michael Kahn

Favourite Scene: When Celie finally fights back against her husband, backing him into a corner
Scene That Bugged Me: Celie and Shug kiss. This is never expanded on or alluded to ever again. Had to do research on the novel to find out what all that was about.

Watch it if: You’re looking for a good drama about racial issues
Avoid it if: You don’t like it when major subplots are alluded to but not expanded on

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Posted on July 3, 2013, in 1980s, Drama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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