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The Color Purple (1985) | Reviews

"The Color Purple," directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1985, is an adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name
The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1985, is an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The film is set in the American South between the early 1900s and the mid-1940s, following the life of Celie Harris, an African-American woman who faces oppression and abuse but ultimately finds strength and independence.

Plot Summary:

 

In the heart of rural Georgia, young Celie Harris grapples with the harsh realities of life. Raped by her own father and forced into marriage with the controlling and abusive “Mister,” she endures years of torment.

Her only solace comes from her younger sister Nettie, who shares her pain and promises to stay connected despite the distance. However, when Nettie flees their father’s unwanted advances and seeks refuge with Celie, the threat of separation looms large. Still, they vow to write, a lifeline in the face of uncertainty.

Years pass, and Celie, hardened by years of abuse, becomes a meek shadow of her former self. Yet, her life takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of Shug Avery, Mister’s long-time mistress and a woman of indomitable spirit.

As Celie nurses Shug back to health, a tender bond blossoms between them. Shug’s strength and resilience inspire Celie, awakening a dormant fire within her. Through Shug, Celie learns of the hidden truth – years of letters from Nettie, detailing a life far away and secrets kept hidden by Mister.

Fueled by Shug’s love and Nettie’s words, Celie finally finds the courage to confront Mister’s cruelty. Her newfound voice ignites a spark in those around her, emboldening Sofia to reclaim her spirit and inspiring Mary Agnes (formerly Squeak) to demand respect.

Together, Celie, Shug, and Mary Agnes break free from the shackles of their past. Years later, Celie finds peace and purpose as a skilled tailor. She is reunited with Nettie and her children, forming a family bound by love and shared experiences.

Mister, a hollow shell of his former self, becomes a lonely recluse, his once-prosperous farm falling into ruin. Harpo, finally seeing the light, reconciles with Sofia, and their bar echoes with the music of Shug, a constant reminder of the strength found in sisterhood and self-discovery.

When Celie learns of her true parentage and inherits the legacy of her biological father, a new chapter begins. With a heart full of gratitude and a spirit that shines brightly, Celie continues to weave her own path, a testament to the human spirit’s unwavering ability to overcome adversity and embrace a life filled with love, joy, and hope.

As the sisters reunite and engage in a childhood hand-clapping game, their connection transcends words. It is a silent language of love, resilience, and an unbreakable bond forged through shared struggle and triumphant redemption.

Themes:

The film explores various themes, including:

Oppression and Empowerment: Celie’s journey from victimhood to empowerment serves as a central theme, portraying the resilience of oppressed individuals.
Sisterhood: The bond between Celie and Nettie, as well as the relationships with other women like Shug and Sofia, highlights the strength derived from female solidarity.
Racism and Sexism: The film addresses the intersecting oppressions of racism and sexism, portraying the challenges faced by Black women in the early 20th-century American South.
Redemption and Forgiveness: Characters undergo transformative arcs, emphasizing the capacity for redemption and forgiveness.

“The Color Purple” received critical acclaim for its powerful storytelling, outstanding performances, and its unflinching exploration of complex themes. The film remains a significant work in cinematic history for its portrayal of African-American women’s experiences and their journey toward self-realization.

* * *

Reviews:

by Armond White

The Color Purple is the best movie of 1985 — and the strangest. Steven Spielberg adapts Alice Walker’s popular tear-jerking novel with gleeful effervescence. He doesn’t pretend to identify with the sor­rowful story of southern Black women’s struggle in the first third of this century; we might be intrinsically skeptical if he did. Instead, Spielberg shows the same simple, optimistic, childlike perspective of his other films. He brings out the feminist fairy-tale essence of Walker’s novel, more than ever confounding and expanding one’s view of pop art.

Spielberg’s movie recalls a pop tradition so vast, it includes D. W. Griffith silents, Lana Turner soap operas, Picasso sculptures, Ntozake Shange plays, rhythm and blues and gospel records, Charles Dickens serials, faux naïf Black musicals, liberal-social melodramas, and John Ford westerns. The film constantly shifts moods and effects and suggests other movies as Spielberg re-creates Walker’s fiction out of his own pop culture syntheses.

Arguably this is the only measure of life that he knows, thus it’s also an honest approach. Such a synthesis happens to bring Hollywood further up to date on feminist and racial issues than the critical estab­lishment may be ready to admit or accept. For better or worse, The Color Purple is a genuine state-of-pop-consciousness movie. Its deft, undeniably effective emotional displays amid frequent, heavy­-handed manipulations force a viewer to understand the artifice of which movie fiction is made and the visual, poetic codes from which Black people and Black experiences have been almost permanently segregated but that Spielberg now restores.

*

Due to Walker’s feminist preoccupation that places racial discrimina­tion second to the oppression of women, the filmmakers (including Dutch screenwriter Menno Meyjes) don’t get hung up on the same old fairness bug that prescribed all previous movies about Blacks. Watching this film is like returning to your own reflection in a mirror — you don’t notice what others may see, you recognize traits distinctly familiar to yourself, perhaps marveling at their form and substance.

The Color Purple feels like the first insider’s movie about Black Americans because the characters aren’t defined by their relation to the white world nor created through a white artist’s sympathetic con­descension. These are new Black archetypes; as fictional creations they are so free of political justification that the whole issue of “cor­rectness” is zapped. The actors are simply wonderful to behold (in part because of Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau’s deter­mined prettiness). Here, at last, is a vivid panoply of Black faces, well lit and without exoticism, treated as natural screen images just as white faces always have been.

Because of Spielberg’s famous sci-fi benevolence, you could call this “loving the alien” (he automatically transcends those do-good ra­cial allegories The Brother from Another Planet and Enemy Mine). He has made the real advance of treating Black people (characters) as any other. Spielberg’s consciousness here is so heightened, it’s giddy; he floats above the earthbound particulars that snag other filmmakers who emphasize conventional Black dialects and ghetto atmosphere. Like Walker, who freely accepted these things (she knew that Black and southern didn’t always mean impoverished), he works to convey a spiritual, emotional quality instead.

Not only have reviewers who have compared The Color Purple to Disney’s Song of the South misunderstood Spielberg’s ingenuousness, they’ve read it wrong. The film’s characters are not carefree, inhu­man, or dimensionless. The struggle toward self-respect by the pro­tagonist Celie may be predetermined but it is neither shallow nor simplistic. Spielberg and Meyjes string together the most telling events of Celie’s sojourn: from her submissive self-deception (Celie’s advising a man to beat his wife may be the most succinct, multileveled illustration of Uncle Tomism on film) to her developing wiles in a round of pathetic-comic-ironic-then-defiant servant scenes. Each increment of her emotional climb is fleet and dramatically potent.

Profundity has only possessed Spielberg in relation to toys (E.T., Close Encounters, or the climax of Sugarland Express, where a teddy bear bounces along a road). He’s shown amazing depth in ways other “ma­ture” filmmakers could not, such as the moment in Sugarland that wove a man’s despair into a few stolen seconds of a Road Runner car­toon. Spielberg’s snappy, head-on visual style is risky and arch for drama. It’s what always kept people from taking him seriously, and The Color Purple often veers into the stylized hyperbole of Frank Tashlin farces and Byron Haskin adventure films.

But this cartoonlike zest may be the only way Spielberg knew to sustain the progression of radical feminist thought upon which the plot is constructed. He doesn’t reduce those thoughts, he makes them pop! The novel was a veiled diatribe — Walker’s accusation and castra­tion of domineering men. Spielberg retains the best of the book’s in­sights into oppression; the cogent feminist ideas allow him to be admirably subtle and elliptical about racism.

But his cartoon sensibility is not subtle enough for the few scenes of Black-white interaction — as when Miss Milly (Dana Ivey), a vic­tim of white male supremacy, vents her helplessness in paranoid hys­terics. Yet the problem may actually be that Ivey, an expert stage comedienne, lacks the emotional resonance of the Black actors. But it is nonsense to complain about Spielberg’s facility. The precision of any one scene, such as a young widow admitting that her husband died “on top of me,” packs an ideological wallop greater than Jill Clayburgh’s whole bra-burning career.

The most common dispute with the film regards Spielberg work­ing in broad, inappropriate slapstick for fear of alienating his audience. This has invited a backlash long brewing since such loud, blunt, even racist Spielberg productions as Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Goonies. It’s unfortunate that this rancor has erupted with The Color Purple, because this film should redeem Spiel­berg’s “genius.” His instinct for the entertaining effect here trans­forms Hollywood’s entire racist legacy.

*

Racism in Hollywood films was usually subtle and select — the industry regularly chose not to give fictional validation to the Black experience or to include it only when comically expedient. Post-World War II filmmakers were stumped by the need for revision, and in the civil rights era it was necessary for filmmakers to depict Black characters solely in terms of social transition. The filmmakers could not re­lax their view, and audiences have been tense ever since. Today the only Black performer regularly involved in recognizable moral dilemmas is a human cartoon (Mr. T.); Broadway maintains the minstrel-show facade of Black life through pastiche shows like Sophisticated Ladies, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Grind, and Dreamgirls, and the highest-rated TV show in the land is Bill Cosby’s pallid Black retread of Make Room for Daddy. In this context the need for large-scale Black mythical figures — a distilled essence of human experience in Black — is greater than ever.

The first half hour of The Color Purple forms the basis of Spielberg’s vision of childhood desire and euphoria — a precious but genuine hu­manist link — and it’s miraculous: In a series of classic vignettes Celie is sexually abused by her “Pa,” gives birth to two children who are taken from her, and is married off to Mr. (Danny Glover), who finally separates her from her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). As the young Celie, Desreta Jackson gives the most lucid, affecting child performance since Henry Thomas in E.T. She has the emotional trans­parency of legendary film actresses and, when paired with pert, doll-like Busia, they recall Lillian and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm, D. W. Griffith’s 1922 epic about two lost sisters reunited after the French Revolution. Spielberg stages the scene of Celie and Net­tie’s separation with a raw, mythic power equal to Griffith’s. And if his audacity has the old master, who also directed the Ku Klux Klan romance, Birth of a Nation, spinning in his racist grave, it’s just! This is the birth of effective Black screen fantasy — not a story of Black people who behave like whites or who finally inherit the kingdom of heaven, as in Marc Connelly’s scandalous yet popular insult, Green Pastures (1936). It’s a vision of Black life that answers strictly emo­tional imperatives and is the first since King Vidor’s unjustly ne­glected Hallelujah in 1929.

Spielberg’s art fills in the gap that has existed between the invention of film fiction and acceptable Black screen portraiture. The narrative here is heroically simple because, as the film’s Griffith and Dickens parallels suggest, the political implications don’t need to be spelled out; we can intuit them, and in the remarkable teaching scene between Celie and Nettie, Spielberg adds his own sweet structuralist-linguistic flourishes.

Whoopi Goldberg as the adult Celie brings a crucial shrewdness to the film, acting out the character’s secret intelligence and at the same time a demonstration of the Black survivalist’s bag of tricks. Her childlike playfulness makes the performance more than clever. When Celie blooms under the loving attention of the bisexual blues singer Shug (Margaret Avery), her joyfulness betrays a perfect emotional empathy between actress and director. There is no movie scene this decade better performed and directed than the discovery and reading of letters between Celie and Shug.

The actors carry us through Spielberg’s Black remake of pop and movie history — from Shug’s Bessie Smith-style dress and singing to the politicization of the Big Mama myth by Oprah Winfrey as Sofia. It also places Walker’s tale properly in the tradition of popular women’s fiction. We see how The Color Purple answers the specific needs of modern women to shape their own triumphant fantasies as once provided by the books of Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst and not just For Colored Girls . . . either. In The Color Purple one feels a continuity between such early feminist-race relations classics as Ferber’s Show Boat and Hurst’s Imitation of Life that also provided the staples of Hollywood melodramas about women who struggled free of dependency on men.

Spielberg somehow manages both the exuberance of Show Boat and the emotional punch of Imitation of Life. The Color Purple should prove as endurably enjoyable as both.

The film fails in one aspect only: It doesn’t sufficiently rectify Walker’s hatred of men. Spielberg almost gets out of this because Danny Glover — who suddenly and terrifically has become the most important Black male actor since Poitier — has a charming, intelligent presence that enriches the hard-hearted character of Mr., but the script neglects his turnabout. It’s stupid to take this as a critique of Black men in particular; the scenes between Glover and Adolph Cae­sar as his father and Willard Pugh as his son construct a system of op­pression that explains machismo as a tradition outside race. Anything more would have significantly changed the material, which was con­ceived in terms of how women sustain each other — exaggerated to the point of idealizing sisterhood as lesbianism (and at the other end, projecting machismo into incestuous rape). Spielberg isn’t up to rethinking these kinds of literary tricks. He tries expanding himself by crosscutting between Celie in Georgia and her sister in Africa; Shug at the juke joint and her father in church. He does a technically superb shuffle and condensation of various ideological and plot information but not much more (Quincy Jones’s overripe score blends themes more effectively).

All this means is that there are limits to Spielberg’s artistry and that The Color Purple often goes off track, even blank. But in such instances it’s on ground that no other mainstream filmmaker has finessed or even dared. There’s much to think about, to feel, much that matters in The Color Purple. It’s a flawed movie but possibly a great one because it’s so vital.

City Sun, January 15-21, 1986

* * *

by Julie Salamon

The ads for The Color Purple describe the movie version of Alice Walker’s novel like this: “It’s about life. It’s about love. It’s about us. . . . Share the joy.”

What director Steven Spielberg apparently didn’t want us to “share” was the pain, the bitterness, and the anger that gave Walker’s book its power. From the moment this movie opens, with the pretty picture of young black women frolicking in a sunlit field of purple flowers, you get the sense that we are in for the Sound of Music approach of making it through hard times. Suffer a little, sing a little.

That isn’t entirely fair. There are many scenes in The Color Purple that are strong and affecting. They do not, however, compensate for the often hackneyed vision of domestic humor, the overreaching for artsiness, the rambling final twenty minutes or so in which Spielberg subjects us to the sight of hordes of blacks leaving the sinful confines of a jazz club and heading off to church, having already been over­come by a joyous fit of gospel singing. These hosannas, which are not in the book, are the silliest kind of stereotyping, as though any black movie — even a nonmusical — requires a climactic bout of rapturous singing with a lot of hand waving and foot stomping.

No one — at least no one who is black — is unredeemable in this picture, which is not the impression Walker’s book left me. The author told her horrifying — and eventually redemptive — story about a black woman’s difficult lot in the first half of this century through the tortured, innocent eyes of Celie, whose stepfather raped her and whose husband abused her. Whatever degrading circumstances may have helped create the two men’s behavior, from Celie’s point of view — the only one we have in the book — they are subhuman and cruel. Eventually, this beaten soul finds the strength to liberate herself after she falls passionately in love with a strong woman.

The best moments in the film are those in which Spielberg is in sync with the dreamy casualness of the folk language Celie uses in the book to write her letters to God, and to her sister Nettie. In one of these scenes we see — and mostly hear — a terrified young girl giving birth, we hear the ominous thud of approaching boots. The boots be­long to the man she thinks is both her father and the father of her child, there to take her baby away. He is the fearful sum of his cruel voice and heavy footsteps, not a human. Later, the strongest sense we have of the way she feels about her husband, whom she calls, imper­sonally, Mr., again comes from the threatening sound of feet.

Yet the ferocity of Mr. (Danny Glover) is greatly diminished when the glamorous and independent Shug Avery arrives on the scene. This alternately dissipated and vibrant blues singer is the woman Mr. has always loved. Celie falls in love with her too.

Before Shug’s arrival we see Mr. only as a tyrant who barks orders at Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), who tremulously obeys. When he leaves to fetch Shug, however, he becomes just another befuddled guy. He runs around the house in traditional movie male bafflement, forgetting cufflinks and the like. Each time the (now endearing) Mr. runs back up the stairs, Celie is waiting with a patient smile, as though she’s thinking, “Isn’t he cute?” Not much earlier, she seemed ready to slice his throat with a straight razor.

Other, subsidiary, male roles, such as Mr.’s father, are built up to no apparent purpose. Still others, such as the part of Shug’s preacher father, are created almost entirely of whole cloth, apparently to show that even a tough cookie like Shug Avery had some man whose ap­proval she needed.

No one would dispute Spielberg’s great abilities as a director. He knows how to put vivid images on the screen that heighten and trans­form reality. He can paint pretty pictures, too, like the flickering shadow paintings through which we watch Celie and her sister play hand-clapping games. But he can get too caught up in his own games. We find out Shug Avery’s coming to town when the camera’s eye is fixed on a pink piece of paper that twirls and spins and flies through the country air, Tinkerbell style, until it plasters itself right up against the screen door. The paper, it turns out, is a handbill announcing Shug’s club date.

And Spielberg, who invested a make-believe creature like E.T. with unforgettable humanity, hits and misses when he’s working with creatures that didn’t come out of the nursery of his brain.

For example, one of the movie’s best-realized characters is Sofia, who is portrayed with great gumption and sympathy by TV talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey in her movie debut. Sofia, who marries Celie’s stepson, is everything Celie isn’t. She’s fat, opinionated, and contemptuous of anyone who tries to walk on her. In the terrible mo­ment when she lets a white person see that contempt — she socks the white mayor in the jaw — a crowd of yammering townsfolk descends on her. Even in this powerful scene, Sofia’s fear of this descending horde doesn’t come across anywhere near as starkly as the terror E.T. felt when the scientists converged on him.

Goldberg does, however, do a fine job with the difficult task of putting us in touch with Celie, whose voice we hear mostly in the narration of her letters. Until she consummates (off camera) her desire for Shug Avery, she is cowed, her thin shoulders bent forward, her eyes nervous as a rabbit’s. When the full weight of the awful trick her husband has been playing on her for years finally sinks in, her mur­derous rage is all the more powerful because she’s been so tightly reined in until that moment.

Yet Spielberg pulls back from developing Celie’s charged, sexual feeling for Shug that is at the heart of the book. When Shug, played by the sultry Margaret Avery, breaks her wild, shimmying nightclub act at a local “juke joint” to sing a loving ballad to mousy Celie, great warmth but no charge passes between the two women. Later, in a lovely moment, Shug forces Celie, who’s always been called ugly, to remove her hand from her mouth and look in the mirror at the bright smile she’s kept hidden.

There are many bright moments like this one submerged in all the earnest goodwill, but not enough to make me feel great about this “feel-good” movie.

Wall Street Journal, December 19, 1985

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