IT’S ABOUT LIFE. IT’S ABOUT LOVE. IT’S ABOUT US.
In 1985, Steven Spielberg was known as the master of big blockbuster thrills after having made films like Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Sure, he had explored other emotions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982)… but those movies still involved aliens and the latter example was aimed more at a childish audience. The Color Purple was something completely different – an emotional drama with very dark streaks, about women of color constantly suffering at the hands of bad men. A tough challenge for any filmmaker, but the movie was nevertheless a huge hit and impressed critics, even those who still struggled with what they considered Spielberg’s excessive sentimentality.
Constantly subjected to rape
The story takes place in rural Georgia and begins in 1909. Celie, a teenage African-American girl, is constantly subjected to rape by her father and gives birth to two children over the years; against her will, her father takes them away. One day, a man called ”Mister” (Danny Glover) makes it clear to Celie’s father that he wants to marry her younger sister Nettie, who’s 12. He’s persuaded to take Celie instead. Her new life with this man is hell right from the start – his children treat her badly and in bed Celie remains a rape victim. As the years go by, she and Nettie are separated but never give up hope of seeing each other again… and new women arrive, posing different challenges for ”Mister”.
Richly drawn female characters
Those women are Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey). The former is an outspoken blues singer who was once Mister’s mistress; she becomes Celie’s friend and even lover. The latter is a big-boned, confident woman who marries Mister’s oldest son Harpo and refuses to accept the violence that he inherits from his father; a horrible incident involving powerful white people years later tragically tames her. There are great, richly drawn female characters throughout this film, played by impressive talents. This was Whoopi Goldberg’s second film and Winfrey’s first. They are tremendously good; the former soft-spoken and downtrodden but finding her voice and self-esteem thanks to her relationships with other women, and the latter dignified, independent and larger than life, until the evil of a racist society breaks her down.
Spielberg is sometimes described as a filmmaker who’s not very good with actors, but the cast here is perfect throughout; Avery is also excellent as the blues singer who has a need to patch things up with her preacher father.
Together with cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg stages the film’s most important moments in ways that are brilliantly effective. It’s not just when Mister forces Nettie to leave his and Celie’s home, or when Shug prevents Celie from cutting his throat, but the most memorable scene is when Sofia’s big mouth lands her in trouble big enough to change her life forever. That moment is directed like a climactic horror scene from a Hitchcock movie. Daviau also delivers immensely beautiful scenery from North Carolina, where the film was shot.
Music plays an important part, not just because Shug is a blues singer (Táta Vega did her singing voice) and the film ends with a rousing gospel scene, but because Quincy Jones provided a stirring albeit very John Williams-esque score. Was he trying to make Spielberg feel at home…?
The Color Purple 1985-U.S. 152 min. Color. Produced by Quincy Jones, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Menno Meyjes. Novel: Alice Walker. Cinematography: Allen Daviau. Music: Quincy Jones. Cast: Danny Glover (Albert ”Mister” Johnson), Whoopi Goldberg (Celie Harris Johnson), Margaret Avery (Shug Avery), Oprah Winfrey, Willard Pugh, Akosua Busia… Laurence Fishburne.
Trivia: Later a Broadway musical.
Golden Globe: Best Actress (Goldberg).
Last word: “I wrote [Walker] a letter and said I would do anything, if there was ever going to be anything done with her book. I would play any character. I would play dirt on the floor. I would be a screen door. She wrote back and said she knew who I was, she had seen my show in San Francisco, she had already mentioned me to Spielberg. Then Steven asked me to do my show before a few of his friends in Los Angeles. A few of his friends! Do you know who his friends are? There were 80 people in the room. Michael Jackson was there.” (Goldberg, RogerEbert.com)