Despite its earthy, authentic prose which detailed life on a rural Georgia farm in the early 20th century, down to the smell of a rain storm and the crinkly sound of aged parchment, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was essentially a fantasy—a deeply personal, tonally exact, and emotionally honest fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. Walker had mirrored aspects of her mother in a myriad of guises, starting with Celie, the author of the 90 letters to God that make up the novel, and had generously given them all the big happy ending that only a work of well-meaning fiction could afford. The glory of the novel, which took home the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, was the overwhelming sense of place and time that Walker had conjured in a vividly drawn and unique voice and the simple nuance of poverty-stricken farm life playing out under a thematic tent of racial identity, misogyny, sexuality, and God, among other things. It blithely reinforced the hope that Celie and those closest to her felt by giving them material wealth and emotional strength, a payoff for the degrading horrors Walker’s mother and grandmother faced that, in reality, was never delivered.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Walker’s book, which was scripted by Menno Meyjes after Walker deemed her own draft unsatisfactory, takes that essential fantasy, embellishes it, adds Quincy Jones’s overblown score, and then, without a wink of irony, indulges in the stereotypes, generalities, and covertly condescending attitudes that Hollywood had used for years to whitewash the cultural complexities of the American South in transition. Walker’s modest dream of divine retribution after lifetimes of repression was eclipsed by Spielberg’s Panaflex vision of the cultural conditioning that African American men and women had gone through and the torturous pace at which this conditioning was altered for the better, played out as sweeping melodrama. And like most films of its ilk, it’s nothing but well-meaning, hopeful, and legitimately sympathetic to the hardships of its characters, which is exactly what makes the end result so frustrating and disappointing.
Spielberg’s film is indeed a heartbreaker, but it’s one that has been calibrated to do so in every facet of the production, starting with the fact that the story is less about the shame and crimes of racism than it is about the perverse realities that African American women lived through even as the Emancipation Proclamation celebrated its 40th anniversary. Celie, played by Desreta Jackson and then, as an adult, by a debuting Whoopi Goldberg, only escapes the house where she has given birth to two separate children by her own father to end up becoming the property of Albert (an explosive Danny Glover); she only refers to him as “Mister,” a not-so-subtle proxy for “Master.” Initially, Albert wants Celie’s younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), but she refuses him and is banished from his land, leaving Celie alone to take care of Albert’s children, clean the house, cook, and, when he feels like it, allow him to “do his business” on top of her.
Thirty years pass by and Celie has become completely indoctrinated, agreeing with Albert when he tells his eldest son, Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), to beat his wife and mother of his children, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), to keep her in line. Sofia is set up in the movie more than the novel as an extension of Nettie, who has since moved to Africa, and her firecracker attitude sets off the first sparks of rebellion in Celie, sparks that create a full blaze when Celie meets Albert’s jazz-singing mistress, Shug (a very good Margaret Avery). Though she introduces herself with an uproarious “You sure is ugly!,” directed at Celie, Shug eventually becomes Celie’s lover, a relationship detailed far more thoroughly in the book, and, eventually, takes Celie with her to Memphis, leaving Albert to turn to the drink, abandon the upkeep of his farm and slowly ponder “doing right” by Celie.
There is, as the movie trudges through its 150-minute-plus runtime, a sense of hard-won awakening in Celie, a glacial shift from laying her troubles and the troubles of the world on God’s will to finding her own sense of justice, happiness, and love. It’s a naturalistic move in terms of narrative trajectory, but it is perhaps the only realistic thing about The Color Purple. Albert’s farm and Harpo’s adjacent jazz shanty are the chief settings of Spielberg’s film and both look resplendent and comforting, thanks to DP Allen Daviau and production designer J. Michael Riva. In technical merits, it’s superb work, but it fails to sufficiently mirror the tortures that its characters undergo throughout the film. It’s a decision that ultimately derives straight from Spielberg’s patented design, which perpetually shrouds all negative aspects of a story behind the façade of grandeur and enduring uplift. You’ll notice that we might see the aftermath or threat of a beating or hear about it, but we never really see Albert beat on Celie, and when Harpo beats on Sofia it becomes borderline comical due to her reciprocal beating Sofia delivers. But then, we never really get to see Sofia deliver those blows and we are purposefully blocked from seeing her lay into a white rich man who strikes her. Violence is consistently implied but almost never shown as a realistic, ugly part of these lives and the film’s veneer of serious social drama begins to deteriorate as these omissions pile up.
To a certain extent, you can’t blame Spielberg for making Walker’s pill easier to swallow. He has always been a Hollywood practitioner and a brilliant craftsman of exuberant male fantasies, which he had been making consistently and very well prior to The Color Purple. It would become the first in a series of broadly drawn social commentaries that would turn incredibly complex issues into feel-good family entertainments. The Terminal is his most hideous moment, but The Color Purple is very nearly as bad, especially when it comes to its resolution. As if bringing Nettie back from Africa and bequeathing the home Celie’s father (who turns out to be her stepfather) raped and molested her in to Celie on his passing, Spielberg and Meyjes top this off with a singing extravaganza that has Shug finally earning the respect of her preacher father, effectively muting the legitimately moving spiritual transformation Celie goes through.
This is not to say that a film that seriously concerns itself with racism or black culture can’t be pleasant or even entertaining, nor that Spielberg owed it to Walker to remain close to her source material. The problem is that The Color Purple on film plays like an apology letter and Walker had made a realistic fiction that had been culled from her own personal history. Nothing feels personalized in the film, not even the style really, and the lives of the characters are not nearly as important as the causes and attitudes they represent in Meyjes’s script. Still, the film predictably received 11 Oscar nominations, secured Spielberg his first DGA win, and made a star of Whoopi Goldberg in one fail swoop. It was the announcement of Spielberg as Our Director: a talented filmmaker who could be politically conscious and yet still only offend a small modicum of the public, a status that not even a record-tying shut-out at the Academy Awards could shake. His action and adventure films were now only stop gaps between “important” films and any loss that one of these projects might incur would easily be evened out by his producing credits, which that very year included box-office giants the likes of The Goonies and Back to the Future. As subtle as a kick to the crotch in its unbearable sentimentality, The Color Purple meant to assert Spielberg’s seriousness as a director, but his act of time traveling is ostensibly no more insightful or compelling than Marty McFly’s.
Warner Home Video has given The Color Purple a beautiful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Images as varied as Celie standing in front of sunflowers in Albert's farm and Harpo and his pal pulling a piano across the river on a raft are crisply rendered in color. Detailing and texture are especially astounding and bring out the care in the tech work that Spielberg employs, including costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers and set decorator Linda De Scenna. The black levels are stunning throughout as well. A similarly outstanding job has been done with the audio here, all the more impressive for properly wrangling Quincy Jones's ham-fisted score. Dialogue remains out front from beginning to end and Jones's music finds amicable ground with the atmosphere noise of rural Georgia, down to the last grasshopper call.
Three featurettes are included on the disc, and though some light is thrown on Alice Walker's novel and creative process, the production itself is handled with kid gloves. One featurette explores the casting of the picture and how Oprah Winfrey pursued the role of Sofia adamantly, but the anecdotes are more self-congratulatory than fascinating. The same goes for a featurette on its critical reception and how it's remembered. All are sufficiently informative yet totally dull. A stills gallery, a theatrical trailer, and a look at the making of the Broadway musical based on the film are also included.
The Color Purple ultimately has about as much to meaningfully say about the American South, race, and misogyny as Jaws has to say about the governing extents of small-town municipalities.