by Pauline Kael
During the making of The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s version of the Alice Walker novel about black women’s lives in the South in the first half of the century, the advance publicity suggested that he was attempting something “serious.” But when you see the movie you realize that he was probably attracted by Walker’s childlike heroine, Celie, and the book’s lyrical presentation of the healing power of love. He may not have understood this, because he approaches the material with undue timidity. It’s no wonder the novel was popular. On the first page, the fourteen-year-old black drudge Celie is raped by the man she believes to be her father. She gives birth to two children by this brute; he takes the babies away, and she has no idea what he has done with them. Tired of her, he forces her to marry another brute—a widowed farmer who needs her to take care of his children. This man uses her sexually and beats her. When her younger sister, Nettie—the only person who cares for her and doesn’t think she’s ugly—runs away from the raping father and comes to stay with her, her husband makes advances to Nettie and, when Nettie fights him, throws her off the property. Poor Celie toils on, with never a kind word coming her way, until her husband brings home Shug Avery, a honky-tonk singer—his true love and sometime mistress—who is sick and needs care. Celie falls in love with the raucous, gutsy Shug (short for “sugar”), and Shug, seeing Celie’s true worth, makes love to her. It’s the turning point of Celie’s life: after experiencing sexual pleasure, she becomes confident of her self-worth, goes out into the world, and returns to make a success of herself running a small business.
But The Color Purple isn’t just the story of Celie; it’s an extended-family saga spanning generations and two continents. (The cast-out Nettie has gone to Africa, with a missionary couple.) The novel is about the bonding of the generous, artistically gifted, understanding black women (no matter how worn down they are, they never speak a harsh word to a child). It s also about the insensitivity, cowardice, and meanness of the black men (Nettie is able to brief us on how the men oppress the women in Africa, too). The glue that holds it all together is a pop-folk religiosity that also serves to keep the book’s anti-male attitudes in check. Walker allows some of the lazy, lecherous oppressors to redeem themselves by accepting their inferiority to then wives and developing their aptitudes for cooking and sewing. So the many characters all come together for a series of reconciliation scenes.
Probably Alice Walker gets by with so much rampant female chauvinism because it’s put in the mouth of her battered fourteen-year-old heroine. The book—or, rather, the best part of it, roughly the first third—is made up of Celie’s letters to God, which are written in a raw, cadenced dialect, an artful version of a rural near-illiterate’s black English. I he book has a joyous emotional swing to it, and this swing can carry a reader light through inspirational passages such as the one where Shug teaches Celie that God is inside her and inside everybody else, that everything wants to be loved and “it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
Spielberg has been quoted in The New York Times as being worried about “doing a movie about people for the first time in my career,” and fearing that he’ll be “accused of not having the sensibility to do character studies.” But the Walker material has about as much to do with character studies as Disney’s Song of the South did. Spielberg’s The Color Purple is probably the least authentic in feeling of any of his full-length films; the people on the screen are like characters operated by Frank Oz. But they’re not much phonier than the people in the book: Spielberg’s problem is that he can’t give the material the emotional push of that earthy folk style of Walker’s. He just doesn’t have the conviction that she has.
Spielberg’s version comes from a man who filters everything through movies. He sees Georgia in 1909 the way a European director might; visually, the picture suggests Song of the South remade by Visconti. When Celie (played in the early scenes by Desreta Jackson and then by Whoopi Goldberg) and Nettie (Akosua Busia) do their jive talk—clapping their hands in fast, intricate rhythms as they chant—it seems to be going on in a faraway, magical kingdom, in a field of pink flowers from the florists who supplied the daffodils tor David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. Spielberg has all this facile, pretty camera technique, but he can’t find an appropriate tone, and so the incidents don’t click into place. The movie is muffled, bombed out, and a gooey score by Quincy Jones calls attention to the emotional void— Jones seems to have been waiting all his life to metamorphose into Max Steiner.
Spielberg soft-pedals the lesbian side of the Celie and Shug romance, and the men may be more buffoonish than they are in the book and so less threatening, but he has tried to be faithful to Walker. This doesn’t do the movie a lot of good. Working from a script (by Menno Mevjes) that hasn’t reshaped the novel into a dramatic structure, Spielberg has trouble getting about two dozen characters in and out of the action, which spans some thirty years. (Performances, such as Rae Dawn Chong’s as Squeak—Celie’s stepson’s mistress, who wants to be a singer—have obviously been truncated.) A scene of several women standing on Celie’s porch is the worst piece of staging this director ever dreamed up. It tops even the crowd scene where the people singing outside a church converge with the people singing inside—a jubilee that reminds you of fire drills in junior high. And this is the only film that Spielberg has ever made where the editing looks to be from desperation. The crosscutting between Nettie’s experiences in Africa and Celie s life back home is staggeringly ineffective. In one sequence, we hop back and forth between Celie, who has just learned of her husband’s full treachery to her and picks up a straight razor to shave him, and Shug, who is at a distance and starts running to the house because she intuits that Celie is about to cut his throat, and Nettie in Africa dashing to a ritual of initiation where children are to have their faces incised. The passage rivals the famous parody of editing in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, where Denholm Elliott played a drunken filmmaker who, having been hired by a father to record his son’s bar mitzvah, got carried away with his art and intercut the gathering with bloody primitive rites. (Spielberg’s African ritual may even be a first on film: a coed tribal initiation.)
Except for the dimpled Oprah Winfrey as the powerhouse Sofia, whose mighty punch at a white man lands her in jail for twelve years, the performers don’t make a very strong impression. Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie may be a little less “real” than the title character in E.T., but, given the conception of Celie—who has to be meek and then discover her power—she does a respectable job. (If we feel a letdown when she takes over from Desreta Jackson’s teen-age Celie, it’s because Jackson is warmer and more open to the camera.) Willard Pugh is likable and peppy as Celie’s stepson, who keeps falling through roofs, and Danny Glover, in the difficult role of the husband who slaps her around, probably does as well as anybody could with material such as the stupid comedy routine where he proves the ineptness of men by trying to prepare a meal for the bedridden Shug and burning everything. (It’s the kind of humiliation that Katharine Hepburn went through long ago in Woman of the Year) it’s no less offensive when the sexual tables are turned; As Shug, Margaret Avery is in a tough spot, because of all the press attention to Tina Turner’s being offered the role and turning it down. (You can’t help imagining how Turner might have played it.) Margaret Avery makes a terrific entrance, grinning, with a jagged front tooth sticking out, and she looks great singing in a glittering red dress in a juke joint. (She s dubbed by Tata Vega.) But then an awful thing happens, which has to be at least partly the director’s fault: she plays the rest of her scenes in a refined, contemporary manner that dulls out all interest in Shug. If you’re among the millions of people who have read the book, you probably expect the actors to be more important than they turn out to be. The movie is amorphous; it’s a pastoral about the triumph of the human spirit, and it blurs on you.
The New Yorker, December 30, 1985