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From the DVD Shelf: The Color Purple

The Color Purple, released in 1985, finds director Steven Spielberg at an interesting point in his career.  After having directed the first two Indiana Jones films as well at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in the early eighties, Spielberg apparently had a desire to move towards more weighty, dramatic material.  But his “serious” films of the late eighties (The Color Purple, along with Empire of the Sun and Always) didn’t meet with an enormous amount of critical acclaim (compared to his successes in the nineties with films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan).  But, in college, I decided I wanted to take a look at those “middle period” Spielberg films, and I was quite pleasantly surprised by their quality.  It’s been a while since I’ve last seen those films, though, so when I spotted The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun in the discount DVD bin at my local Newbury Comics, I snatched them both up.

I haven’t had a chance to get to Empire of the Sun yet, but my wife and I watched The Color Purple last month.  It wasn’t quite as good as I had remembered it, but I still think it’s a better film than people tend to think.

Adapted from the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the life story of an African American woman, Celie.  Growing up in turn-of-the-century Georgia, the poor girl struggles through hardship after hardship.  She is raped by her father as a young girl, and gives birth to two children who he takes from her.  She is married off to a cruel local farmer (Danny Glover), who beats her and forcibly separates her from her beloved sister, Nettie.  Later in life she forms an unexpected friendship with her husband’s mistress, the vivacious singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), who sets Celie on a path towards finally coming out of her shell and finding some happiness for herself.

The Color Purple is notable for some terrific performances from some well-known actors who, looking back on the film now, are unbelievably young here.  Whoopie Goldberg, in one of her very first screen appearances, plays Celie, and she is fantastic — soulful and full of life, even though she has very little dialogue in the film.  Whoopie is a talented comedian, but I have found that I’ve always preferred her in straight dramatic roles, and this is no exception.  Danny Glover doesn’t often play the “bad guy” in films, but he does a great job here as the monstrous Albert.  He cuts quite a menacing figure.  Oprah Winfrey appears, also in one of her first screen appearances, as the vivacious and strong-willed Sofia.  Her performance is a little over the top, but it’s hard to complain because she energizes every scene that she’s in.  It’s also fun to see a very-skinny Laurence Fishburne (credited here, as he was in many of his early film roles, as Larry Fishburne) in a small role as a musician.  I must also compliment the two young actresses, Desreta Jackson and Akosua Busia, who play the young versions of Celie and Nettie, respectively, in the early portions of the movie.

Where the film stumbles is its tone.  Most of Spielberg’s films, even his most deadly serious ones, incorporate humor to some degree.  When done successfully, those moments can bring a much-needed lightness and release of tension to the proceedings.  Here, though, the shifts from tragedy to comedy are somewhat jarring.  It’s hard to laugh, for instance, at Albert’s bumbling attempts to find all of his nice clothing (in preparation for a date with his mistress, Shug) after having watched him be terribly cruel to Celie in scene after scene.  These tonal shifts aren’t helped by the on-the-nose score by Quincy Jones, whose music screams “this is FUNNY!” or “this is SERIOUS!” in a rather intrusive way through much of the film.

There is also a lot of over-simplification, in the story and in its execution.  When one of Albert’s kids throws a rock at Celie’s head, she touches her wound and then stumbles, leaving a movie-perfect red hand-print in the snow.  After moving in with Albert, she discovers the ridiculously over-the-top filthy state of his kitchen, and undertakes a Cinderella-esque cleaning.  (Of course, once she’s done, Albert comes in and plops his filthy boots up on the clean table.)  There’s a moment towards the end of the film, when we’re meant to see that Albert’s home has once again become terribly run down — and as the camera pans across, one of the window shutters falls down, right on cue.  I found these sorts of things to be silly and laugh-inducing — surely not the intended reaction.  There’s also a scene, late in the film, in which dramatic events at a dinner table snap Sophia out of the terrible state into which she has fallen.  (After a terrible tragedy results in her beating and imprisonment for eight years, when she emerges it is as a withdrawn shadow of her formerly high-spirited self.)  Something happens (which I won’t spoil here) at this dinner scene that brings her back to herself.  This should be a dramatic, emotional moment.  But the scene is played in such an over-simplified way, in which one minute Sophia is practically a vegetable and then — snap! — the next minute she’s back to her old, chatty self, that it becomes silly and takes the dramatic air out of the moment.

In the end, I wouldn’t list The Color Purple as one of Mr. Spielberg’s greatest works.  But it remains a solid, interesting film, and worth your while, particularly if you’re a fan of Spielberg as I am.

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