Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Color Purple

32. The Color Purple (1985)
Dir: Steven Spielberg


When he decided to make a big screen adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize wining novel 'The Color Purple', it seemed Steven Spielberg just couldn't win with the critics. Spielberg experienced strong opposition from those who felt a white director helming a predominently African American story was an implicitly racist prospect. He also received criticism both for deviating too much from the source text and for his negative depiction of black males, a plot element that stems from sticking extremely closely to the text. He was lambasted for perceived stereotyping, as well as mocked for being a director of Summer blockbusters striving to move into "serious" filmmaking. The latter criticism seems laughable given that Spielberg went on to become known for films like 'Schindler's List' (1993) and 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998). It also seems likely that this snobbish reaction to a director trying to broaden his range came from the same critics that would have accused Spielberg of resting on his laurels had he just kept churning out the blockbusters.

A further criticism of 'The Color Purple' was that Spielberg had romanticized the plight of his characters with the film's gorgeous cinematography. Aside from the fact that this and a great deal of the other criticism came from white critics whose attempts to speak on behalf of the black community was as presumptuous as Spielberg's choice of text, the implication of criticising the glossiness of 'The Color Purple' is that stories depicting African Americans should always depict them in grainy squalor, an equally problematic opinion. I don't want to focus on the criticisms levelled at 'The Color Purple' for too much longer because I'd like to get to reviewing what I feel is a superb film. All I will say is that while some of the concerns about Spielberg being the right choice to direct this material are certainly not without their validity, in my opinion he did a masterful job in bringing a strongly pro-African American, pro-feminist text to mainstream cinema when many of his critics in the film industry were doing little to that end.

'The Color Purple' spans a thirty year time period, following the life of poor black girl Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in the American South of the early 1900s to the mid-30s. As we join the story, the fourteen year old Celie has already had two children by her sexually-abusive father, both of which have been taken away from her. Although this has obviously had an effect on Celie, she seems to have come to regard these events as the norm and informs us of them in a mostly passive narration. Her father marries her off to abusive widower Albert (Danny Glover), whom Celie refers to only as 'Mister' and under whom she suffers the same regime of joyless sex, frequent beatings and a slave-line existence. Celie's one joy in the world is her sister Nettie, with whom she shares the closest of bonds. Nettie comes to live with Celie and 'Mister' but, when she refuses his forceful advances, she is thrown out of the house. The sister's are split up, with Nettie defiantly stating that only death will keep her from Celie. When she hears nothing from Nettie for an extended period, Celie assumes she has died.

So begins 'The Color Purple's harrowing narrative. At this point you're probably expecting a pretty rough ride but Spielberg's legendary lightness of touch makes the film exquisitely entertaining without ever diminishing the magnitude of Celie's suffering. The central plotpoint of the sisters' seperation sets up an ongoing familial love story that becomes the film's major narrative thrust. It is also the point at which Spielberg initiates the first major jump ahead in the timeline, introducing many more wonderful characters as he does so. We are introduced to the seemingly indomitable Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), who marries 'Mister's grown son Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), the owner of a local juke joint. We also meet 'Mister's long term mistress Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), a singer who comes to stay with Celie and 'Mister' for a period of convalescence. These women prove to be a strong influence on Celie's growth from a downtrodden wife to an empowered woman in her own right.

Although it is largely set in and around the same concentrated area ('Mister's house and land) Spielberg's beautiful presentation makes 'The Color Purple' seem truly expansive. While never diminishing the terrifying domestic circumstances that Celie lives with, the film also allows us to appreciate the natural beauty of its Southern American setting, which is entirely in keeping with the theme that arises in the quotation which gives the film its name; "I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it". Only once, during Shug's climactic, gospel-soundtracked march to church, does Spielberg teeter on the brink of Coca-Cola advert aesthetics but the joyous energy of the scene just about saves it, just as the genuinely earned emotion of the finale prevents it from sliding into sentimentality.

As well as exhibiting impeccable storytelling and luscious cinematography, 'The Color Purple' is also a spellbinding actor's showcase with most participants turning in their best screen work. Danny Glover is detestable but believably human as 'Mister', never slipping into cheap cartoon villainy. Adolph Caesar as 'Mister's father, is equally excellent and his behaviour explains a lot about his son's attitudes. But 'The Color Purple' is undoubtedly a film that belongs to its female protagonists. The trio of central women were all Oscar nominated and deservedly so in at least two cases. Margaret Avery's Shug is a fine, subtle characterisation which perhaps lacks that something special that an Oscar nomination should demand. Oprah Winfrey, however, is a revelation, especially for anyone who, like me, knew her only as a presenter of vapid talk shows in which audience member's exhibit grotesque displays of almost religious rapture when presented with material goods! This lowest form of barrel-scraping entertainment never once entered my mind as Winfrey completely embodied Sofia through her emotional journey from no-nonsense powerhouse to broken spirit and back again.

But it is Whoopi Goldberg who gives the movie's defining performance. Latterly known for brash, sassy loudmouth parts akin to her Oscar-winning turn in 'Ghost' (1990), this early part allows Goldberg to explore a subtler style. Celie is a downtrodden, shy woman who gradually comes out of her shell through the influence of various strong women who enter her life, who she in turn influences. This subtle transformation is allowed the necessary room to develop by the films 154 minute running time and Goldberg essays Celie's gradual progress with captivatingly realism. A particularly impressive scene sees a giggley Celie experiencing the freedom of laughter without covering up the smile she has always been told is ugly. This is a turning point in both her relationship with Shug and her development as a strong, independent woman. In her deeply moving growth as a person, Goldberg seems to effortlessly incorporate elements of her co-stars' performances into her own character, so that when she finally inspires Sofia to snap out of her trauma-induced catatonic living-death, it's as if she literally reaches out and takes back a slice of her former self back from Celie.

While some found Spielberg's undeniably commercial approach to be an uncomfortable fit with Walker's story, it had the effect of ensuring 'The Color Purple' reached a wider audiences than any unpalatably dark reading of the text would have. While there is, and probably always will be, a snobby attitude towards the mass market in film criticism, it is likely that an uncommercial retelling of the novel would have seen Spielberg preaching to the converted, rather than presenting Walker's powerful mediatations on sexual and racial empowerment to the widest possible audience. As such, 'The Color Purple' is an admirable affair, making a disturbing story accessible and enjoyable without watering down its power. Only in a few ill-advised comedy asides does Spielberg's take on the book feel jarring but these are few and far between.

'The Color Purple' sees a master filmmaker broadening his scope without sacrificing his distinctive style. While many still maintain that it is an interesting but failed experiment, a good deal more people have reassessed the film in light of Spielberg's subsequent successes in the "serious" dramatic genre, divorcing themselves from the preconceptions that marred its appraisal at the time. It's fair to say that 'The Color Purple' may disappoint fans of Alice Walker's novel who expect something more radical and bleak but fans of Spielberg's work, and mainstream cinema in general, will likely find themselves swept up, as I did, in this beautiful literary adaptation.

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