Color Purple, The (1985)

Spielberg’s overdrawn drama is a safe if underwhelming adaptation of Alice Walker’s landmark novel.  

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #429

Dir. Steven Spielberg
1985 | USA | Drama | 154 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG (passed clean) for some strong thematic material

Cast: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey
Plot: A black Southern woman struggles to find her identity after suffering abuse from her father and others over four decades.
Awards: Nom. for 11 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actress (x2), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Original Song.

Distributor: Warner Bros

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 20 Jul 2009
Spoilers: No

In an envied career that is responsible for some of cinema’s most entertaining (and profitable) films, Steven Spielberg rarely indulges in serious filmmaking. But when he does, the end product is no less spectacular.

Think Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Munich (2005), three historical-based films that explore heroism, sacrifice, and guilt respectively on a grand scale and directed with the assurance and confidence of a master filmmaker.

Before all that, it took a decade before Spielberg directed his first serious work after the success of Jaws in 1975. The Color Purple is the result.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning story on racism, sexism and lesbianism set in an impoverished rural black community in the US in the early 20th century, The Color Purple is adapted by Menno Meyjes whose screenplay roughly stays true to the novel and has enough material for Spielberg to play with. 

Spielberg, as we know him, has the potential to make any kind of movie and direct it adequately well.  The Color Purple represents his first real opportunity to shut his critics up, especially those who label him as nothing more than a showman with great money-making sense.

Spielberg’s immense talent is a double-edged sword.  Technically, he is one of the best in the business and as evident in this film, he frames The Color Purple with real authenticity.  

The cinematography, sets, and costumes are visually pleasing and conveys excellently (though not completely) the spirit of that bygone era.  And in Quincy Jones, he has a music master whose rich, lush score accentuates the picturesque scenes beautifully.

“I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.”

The acting is quite impressive. Danny Glover (Albert), Margaret Avery (Shug), Whoopi Goldberg (Celie), and Oprah Winfrey (Sofia) heads the cast of mostly black actors.  Goldberg’s performance is by far the most memorable though Winfrey’s understated role is in my opinion, the best display of the film. 

Both Goldberg and Winfrey receive Oscar nominations for their deep, emotional work in The Color Purple, and this is made even more remarkable considering that this is their feature debut.  Sofia’s lifelong battle against racism and sexism eventually rubs on Celie who gradually transforms from a timid conservative to a fighter of a just cause.

Spielberg’s tendency to sentimentalize does not fare well in The Color Purple.  With a runtime of more than 150 minutes, the film does have several unnecessary scenes which if cut could have brought a more measured pacing to the picture.  

In one sequence, Chug with hundreds of followers tailing her sings her way into a packed local church in a ‘reunification scene’ where the sentimental, rhapsody-like approach by Spielberg is more strangely curious than unique.

The Color Purple lacks a potent driving force and some of the themes explored are not very well done.  There are moments in the film when my interest drops despite the strong performances.

The lesbianism between Shug and Celie is tamely portrayed; not a surprise as Spielberg is never comfortable depicting romance on screen.  The film’s impact leaves us underwhelmed.  

The result could have been more positive if it was helmed by another director in the mould of Spike Lee – provocative and daring.  Spielberg was never the right choice for The Color Purple but at least he tackled something different.

Grade: B-  



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