Article By: Dan Clark
By 1985 Steven Spielberg was already one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood. He had been nominated for multiple Oscars, and his films began the blockbuster era we live in today. Despite his success the one knock was he had yet to direct a ‘serious’ movie. That changed when he was slated to bring Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel The Color Purple to the big screen. Spielberg was at first hesitant to direct this film as he lacked the personal knowledge needed to convey this story. He was eventually convinced and used The Color Purple as evidence that he could direct a narrative that is solely based in human drama. Surely it was instrumental in leading Spielberg to create some of his greatest artistic achievements. This film is far more than just a stepping stone. It delivers a high level of emotional agony and triumph. The learning curve does prove to be too sharp at times as its passion causes it to diverge into overt acting and prolonged suffering. Still, The Color Purple proves to be a testament to the horrors life can bring, and the ability of the human spirit to overcome.
Spielberg transitioning from movies like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Color Purple is analogous to a known comedian attempting to take on a more serious role. So it is fitting the star of the film is Whoopi Goldberg, who up to that point was solely known for her work as a stand-up comedian. Directing someone in their first feature is difficult for a seasoned director, let alone one breaking into a new genre for the first time. Their partnership was for the most part successful. Goldberg earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, but one wonders if that was more based on her ability to surpass expectations. For most of the film she is this shy reserved character with a deflated sense of self-worth. By the nature of the character’s design the role is limiting. Goldberg is effective at limiting herself to this timid personality, but she lacks a quality of authenticity. She is too consequence of her characters movements, causing each decision to feel over pronounced. There are definitely moments where you can feel her grief. You would also be hard pressed not to want to route for her. There is simply a force artificiality hovering over her performance.
In the film she plays Celie, a woman with a troubled existence living in the early 1900’s. The film follows thirty years of her life from her adolescents till she is middle-aged. Her life is filled with heartbreaking tragedy. By the time she was 17 she had already been impregnated twice—by her own father. Things only get worse for her as she is basically given away to Albert(Danny Glover), an older man who was trying to marry her more attractive younger sister. Celie’s only solace in life is her sister. That also gets taken away from her when Albert forces her away after she refused his sexual advances. Years and years of abuse and neglect go by until a small glimmer of hope suddenly presents itself. Celie might finally get a life she most indisputably deserves
Those who weren’t aware the film was based on a book could tell merely by its story structure. The scope of the film and the way the story evolves reek of a novel adaptation. Material is a river wide—but a puddle deep. It delves into issues like race relations, poverty, and the inequality of gender, yet not much is said about any of them. Perhaps it was Spielberg’s uneasiness that caused hesitation when a controversial topic became available. One particular example was an alluded to homosexual relationship involving Celie. It was handled in such an overblown ambiguous manner there was seemingly no point. While the story lacked profound thought, it certainly was full of passion.
The focal point was the forced relationship between Celie and Albert, and it thrived at providing misery and agony. There are moments that are certainly hard to watch. Watching Celie constantly getting emotional beat down will evoke masses amounts of helpless anger. Few people can immerse you into an experience like Spielberg. Typically he accomplishes that goal with his masterful directorial style. In this his trademark camerawork was mostly muted. He took a back seat to allow the actors to control the show, removing him as the focal point. The Color Purple is unmistakably an actor’s movie.
Danny Glover gave one of the film’s best performances. He was this vial creature that still had a small sense of charm. He is a person you love to hate. Glover knew precisely when to dial back his smokescreen bravado, and when he should dial it up. Unlike his costar Oprah Winfrey. She play Sofia, his large and in charge daughter-in-law, who is bursting with sass. She is the type of person who would not back down to anyone. Similar to Goldberg this was also Winfrey’s first film, and she too earned an Oscar nomination. Not surprising as her performance has Oscar bait written all over it. Overacting issues aside, she is still shockingly good. While it may not be the worthwhile performance some make it out to be, she does an adequate job with what is demanded of her.
One aspect that is infamously left of this Spielberg feature is a score by John Williams—making it the only film that is completely directed by Spielberg that is not scored by Williams. Music legend Quincy Jones took his place, and does a fantastic job. Music along with the great costume and set design go a long way in bringing this past back to life. This is a period piece that represented the past in all its filthy glory. The dirt in the air was so palpable you could taste it. The art direction all around was fantastic.
The Color Purple showed the Steven Spielberg was more than just a genre director. He was capable of crafting a quality story without an assortment of special effects. The narrative was solely reliant on his ability to tell a story. With a number of splendid performances behind him that ability shined through. Some often forget Spielberg was the director behind The Color Purple, which goes to show even the greats know where their voice should not be the loudest.
Great stuff as always Dan. I HAD NO idea he directed this!