“I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here!” Welcome back to Series Spielberg, a series on Film Sentinel in which we revisit a work from the career of Steven Spielberg each week. This week we are looking at The Color Purple: it is a film that represents an important turning point in Spielberg’s career, as it is here that he ventured into socially topical and serious subject matter for the first time. Spielberg was the wrong director for this project, but The Color Purple remains a moving adaptation of the novel, as well as a valuable exploration of its issues.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
1985’s The Color Purple is based on the novel of the same name by Alice Walker, which was published in 1982, and made Walker the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book is written in a series of letters by two black sisters, Celie and Nettie, some of them written to God, and some to each other. The letters span 30-40 years in the early 1900s, and through them we learn the harsh conditions that Celie lives in as she faces separation, abuse, racism and sexism, while eventually reuniting with her sister and discovering her inner worth.
Around this point in time, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in pursuing more serious projects in which he could test his skills as a director beyond the commercial content for which he was known. Producer Kathleen Kennedy had known this, and having read and loved The Color Purple, she gave the novel to Spielberg to read. Steven also fell in love with the story, so he embarked on adapting it to film. Walker was given enormous creative control over the project, and personally gave approval to Steven, as well as to the film’s screenwriter, Menno Meyjes.
The Color Purple film is largely faithful to the plot of the novel, following the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). As a young girl, Celie mothers two daughters after being molested by her stepfather, who then takes them away. As a teenager, she is given off to marry Mr. ______ (Danny Glover), who forces her to raise his three children, rapes her, and beats her. She is separated from her sister Nettie, but over the years, she gains strength through her relationships with her female companions, and at the end of the film she is reunited with Nettie, as well as her children.
Before we get much further, we need to address the unavoidable: Steven Spielberg, as a white man, should not have been the director for this project. As a story almost entirely populated by black characters, and principally concerned with the struggles of black women, the ideal perspective to helm this film would be an African American woman. But, due to systemic racism in Hollywood since its beginning, there weren’t many prominent black directors at this time, let alone female black directors. Yet, given this in mind, Steven makes a fairly admirable hack at it.
That being said, the final work is still a worthy exploration of many of the novel’s themes, and is very moving. And that is mostly thanks to the powerful story by Alice Walker, from which the film version rarely deviates in little else than presentation. As a directorial piece, however, it’s not one of Steven’s better products, as he has had little practice before here with cut-and-dry drama that doesn’t involve action set pieces. It’s also clear that at this point in his career, Steven was not comfortable with depicting shocking subject matter, nor with tackling taboo topics.
It follows that the most striking difference between the novel and the film is the softening of the more harsh content, and the glossing over of some certain plot threads. This sanitization is due in part to the limitations of the intended PG-13 rating, but it’s also because of an intrusive sense of optimism. The film is a strong example of the classic Spielberg sentiment in its rawest form, and in the process of favoring the cheerier aspects of the story, much of the characters’ suffering gets ignored, which in turn ignores the suffering of African American women as a whole.
The most notable omission from the story is the romantic relationship that develops between Celie and Mr. ______’s mistress, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Through her love affair with Shug, Celie realizes her repressed sexual identity going through life in virtual sexual servitude, first for her father, and then for her husband. The film offers one scene in which the pair kiss, a far cry from the intimate and passionate details throughout the novel. Steven would go on to say he regretted not going further, saying he was too intimidated by the cultural mores of the 1980s.
Another element of the novel that gets cut short in the film is the maturation of Mr. ______ later in life after Celie leaves him, and their ultimate reconciliation. The film has been accused of stereotyping black men as promiscuous abusers, and some of that likely could have been curbed had Mr. ______’s story been able to have been depicted in full. Steven has explained reducing this plot thread because he believed this to be a women’s story, and he’s right, though with over two and a half hours of run time, one wonders if there could have been a way to fit this in.
But now that I’ve spent the majority of this review harping on everything that’s wrong with the movie, there certainly is a lot that it gets right, as it’s an excellent attempt at capturing the novel’s soul. For one, the casting is impeccable, as it famously heralds the acting debuts of two of America’s most beloved black women, Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, and Oprah Winfrey as her friend Sofia. Goldberg superbly captures Celie’s internalized trauma living under misogyny, as well as her loving spirit, while Oprah enjoyably delivers Sofia’s boisterous style as a fighter.
As a newcomer to drama, Steven struggles mightily at finding ways to transition between the various situations and time periods, but he does play around with some interesting directing choices that work quite well. He quite fittingly likes to focus on the visual motif of the mailbox, as the mail is the means through which Celie and Nettie are able to maintain their relationship through the years. An excellent stylistic flair features the camera actually going inside the mailbox, as we, the audience then emerge on the other side entering the context of a new scene.
The film was showered with Oscar nominations, though it failed to win any. Goldberg and Winfrey were each given exceedingly deserving nominations for Lead and Supporting actresses, while the film also received some less deserving nominations, such as Best Original Score for Quincy Jones. The music here is extremely heavy-handed, augmenting what is already an overly-romanticized treatment by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was not the right choice for this project, but, mistakes aside, he did a respectable job, though I would say you should just stick to the book.
At the end of the day, The Color Purple still broke boundaries for African-American cinema, and was quite progressive for its time, but the fact remains that we can do better than giving the final say on these sensitive topics to those to which they don’t effect. Steven Spielberg wrestled with this, but producer Quincy Jones talked him down, saying “did you need to go to Mars to make E.T.?” This is quite an insensitive approach, as E.T. represents a fictional race of aliens, and Celie and Nettie represent a people group that is very real, and that faces very real discrimination.
Black lives matter.
Next week, we’ll be looking at Steven’s next foray into more dramatic material with an adaptation he is much better suited for, Empire of the Sun. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for rental through digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.