Wednesday, January 03, 2024

THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)*****

In preparation for the remake of THE COLOR PURPLE I thought I would revisit the original screen adaptation. It was directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Menno Meyjes and based on Alice Walker's iconic novel of black southern female misery.  At the time this must have seemed like rather an odd combination of director and writer for such material - two white men, known for their work in blockbuster action movies. Indeed, the race of the directorial choice attracted a lot of criticism, as well as Spielberg's coy depiction of its lesbian storyline.  I feel that both of these criticisms fail to consider the context of the time: the need to attract commercial backers and keep a PG-13 rating for the mass market. They also fail to acknowledge the opportunity to see so much black talent in front of and behind the lens - with stunning debut feature central performances from Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, as well as a masterful score from Quincy Jones.*  A more convincing criticism of both book and film is its depiction of black male sexual violence.  Added to this, one might criticise the racism of the film industry. While the film was nominated for eleven Oscars, it didn't win a single one. 

The book and film take place over the first half of the twentieth century in the rural South. Their protagonist is Celie - a black girl so oppressed that she is raped by her father and her incestuous children taken from her.  She is then given to another violent man as his wife, dudgeon and surrogate mother to his children.  The only love in Celie's life is her sister Nettie, but they are cruelly separated by her husband and she spends much of her life believing Nettie is dead.  The only friendship Celie has is with her stepdaughter-in-law Sophia, whose fierce temper and assertiveness are an inspiration and then a tragedy.  And the only lover Celie truly has is Shug, her husband's long-time mistress, who teaches Celie what real sexual pleasure can be.

The standard criticism of Spielberg films is that they are sentimental and gauche. There is sentiment here but it is all earned. Whoopi Goldberg's debut as Celie is so heartbreakingly sincere that one cannot help but glory in her small moments of happiness and love. I was similarly deeply moved by Shug (Margaret Avery), the stunning singer, in her final homecoming to her disapproving pastor father. And there is something quite haunting about Sophia's humbling, portrayed by an otherwise vivacious and scene-stealing Oprah Winfrey. 

There is so much else to admire in this film beyond the economic script and great performances. Allen Daviau's cinematographer portrays both the lush warmth of the South as well as the oppressive claustrophobia. There is both beauty and violence in this film. But for me, it's all about Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy's score. This is tremendously powerful film-making.

THE COLOR PURPLE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 154 minutes.  *I am curious to see how the new film - based on a musical adaptation of the book - will better the final "coming home" of Shug to a thrilling gospel score.) 

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