“All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men, but I ain’t never thought I’d have to fight in my own house!”
“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”
“Nothing but death can keep me from it.”
From the first visuals of “The Color Purple”, two sisters running and frolicking in a field of tall grass flooded with purple flowers, we will sense this is quite a genre departure for director Steven Spielberg. With thrillers (Duel, Jaws), alien movies (one about spiritual seeking and yearning and the other about a friendly alien), a dud of a comedy (1941), and action/adventure movies (Indiana Jones series), Spielberg moves into the category of historical drama based on a Pulitzer-prize winning book by Alice Walker working from a screenplay by Menno Meyjes.
This was my first time ever watching “The Color Purple”, a movie brimming with humanism as well as an African-American woman’s connection to God while facing tragically horrible situations and then later, joyous connections. The film starts in 1909 in rural Georgia and winds its way through to the 1930s.
Comparatively Spielberg, who at this point in his career had demonstrated enough financial and popular success to do any movie he wanted, chose to make a very scaled down film. “The Color Purple” take place on a small farm, with fields all around, and a white two story house that is home to the Johnson’s. There is also a small old gospel church with an old white wooden steeple extending into the sky.
These scenes are within the frame of Celie Johnson’s (Whoopi Goldberg who gives a phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance) experienced life as she is abused and raped by her father Albert (a menacing Danny Glover). Her life is unspeakable tragedy and yet she pens letters to God that serve as narration in the movie.
A deep connection abides between Celie and her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). In spite of the terror around them, they play, run through fields of flowers and carve their names onto a tree on the property. Wide ranging abusive family drama abounds though, and Albert will force Nettie away from his home and thereby, force the separation between the two sisters. Nettie vows that this will never stop her from seeking communication with Celie. But the years pass and Albert always intercepts Nettie’s letters from the mailbox.
Roger Ebert named this the best movie of 1985 and “The Color Purple” was nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture. For that kind of acclaim, the film is impeccably made and has moments of stunning cinematography by Allen Daviau. The acting including Goldberg, Glover and in her first performance as Sofia, a young Oprah Winfrey is top notch. However, there is the Spielbergian sentimentality hovering around the themes that I have complicated feelings about.
The unparalleled evil that we witness in this movie including incestuous rape is indeed terrible and one of the themes that comes out as Shug Avery (played by Margaret Avery as a singer who is taken into the Johnson home) is having a conversation with Celie is her statement: “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” In other words, even with the grotesque horror that may be a part of someone’s life, they should notice the good things. Having never experienced anything close to what the fictional character Celie (and her sister) has, I imagine people who have lived through vicious assaults and abuse may really struggle with this aspect. The way the movie plays this message is certainly sentimental. I cannot imagine telling someone who has experienced trauma, sexual assault and abuse like this to just consider the good things in your life. Just take the time to smell the roses.
That being said, Spielberg’s heart is in the right place. He, and the writers, are attempting to give hope even in the darkest of situations. In “Schindler’s List”, Spielberg will examine the depravity of humanity contrasted with how one guy’s actions can rise to a powerful righteousness. The full scale of human volition and capability. In “The Color Purple” he is navigating the depths of despair and the soaring exhilaration of joy (consider the church gospel song toward the end as well as the climax) and juxtaposing those experiences against one another. A heavy contrast of the human experience.
So, yes, I would not call this movie perfect but it definitely is considerable. The swelling and overwhelming soundtrack (by a host of artists) that occasionally shouts at us to feel something can be a little much but the positive aspects of this work outweigh the bad. As I mentioned before, Spielberg after his run from the mid-1970s could have done any movie he wanted at this point in his career. He chose a film involving a mostly African-American cast that centered around the lives of impoverished black women trying to not only survive but live with hope in the early 20th century. The movie also contains a LGBTQ (lesbian) kissing scene right in the middle of the Reagan 80s as if Spielberg was trying to carry over some of the avant-garde cinema from the 1970s.
“The Color Purple” runs fairly long but there are real moments of beauty and reflections on how faith in God can lead people through the deepest of misery.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
The Color Purple
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
1941 (Review here)