The Color Purple is a 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg starring a young Whoopy Goldberg, she was thirty years old at that time. The cast also features Danny Glover (two years before the first Lethal Weapon), Oprah Winfrey and even Lawrence Fishburne in a small part. Menno Meyjes’s screenplay is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, which was a smash hit and was also at the center of considerable controversy. An inevitable controversy, perhaps, given that it dealt with issues such as racism, family violence and homosexuality in the United States of the first half of the XX century.
The film tells the story of Celie and the people who gravitate around her in a small country town in Georgia. Teenage Celie (Desreta Jackson) is abused by her father who has already impregnated her twice and hid her children away from her. Her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) is the only person who loves her, and the feeling is mutual. However, the two are separated when Mister (Danny Glover) marries Celie so that he can take care of his three children and his house, and so that he can abuse her whenever he feels like it.
Nettie runs away from home and Celie and her husband welcome her, but the latter throws her out of the house when she refuses his advances, separating the sisters once again, this time for many years. Celie grows up (and in the older version she’s played by Whoopy Goldberg) and slowly the film broadens its horizons to tell the stories of many other characters. Albert, as Celie’s abusive husband is called, is an inept and is in love with a singer, Shug (Margaret Avery), who uses him as he uses many others. At a certain point, she has a half love affair with Celie herself!
The movie also shows what happens to a black woman when she tries to raise her head: poor Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) spends many years in prison and gets disfigured for disrespecting the white mayor of the village. Moreover, Nettie disappears for a lot of time especially because Albert hides her letter to Celie (he only has a moment of redemption right at the end of the movie). The moment in which Celie finds her sister’s letters (thanks to Shug) is touching, as is discovering that Nettie is in Africa with the parents of Celie’s two children!
But it would be useless to try to summarize the long plot of this two and a half hour long film, which in any case contains only a part of the events narrated in the novel. The Color Purple is one of those epic and epochal movies, and luckily 1985’s Spielberg was still able to put lighter moments and comic situations into it. For instance, one of Albert’s sons, Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), falls repeatedly from the roof, there’s a classic Spielberg brawl in a tavern, and there are also a few moments of slapstick comedy with Albert who doesn’t even know how to dress himself (nor he’s able to fry a couple of eggs).
Spielberg proves to be able to shoot with equally capable hand the tearful moments as well as the epic ones of denouncing the racism in the southern United States at the time (and the scenes of brutality of the sheriff on poor Sofia remind of the recent death of George Floyd and who knows of how many other African Americans at the hands of law enforcement).
The director wasn’t really convinced that he was doing the right thing when he made The Color Purple (he was also criticized because he was a white man making a movie about African Americans), and it’s not one of the films he remembers most fondly (for example, he says he regrets the lack of of courage in showing the relationship between Celie and Shug). Having said that, one cannot fail to marvel at his mastery: he certainly wasn’t an immature director (looking at his CV, he started off with a bang with Duel and Jaws respectively in 1971 and 1975, he had already made the first two Indiana Jones and he had enjoyed global success with E.T. the Extra-terrestrial in 1982), but this film demonstrates an enviable artistic maturity.
I also enjoyed noticing the many signature match cuts used by Spielberg: train rails that turn into tractor wheels, moving vehicles that take us from the United States to Africa within a second… It’s always very interesting see how Spielberg combines the various scenes of his films with each other, or how he uses all those dolly shots to give dynamism to the most explosive scenes. In fact, there’s little to criticize: an exceptional cast, despite being the debut of actresses like Whoopy and Oprah, some spectacular music, an exceptional cinematography… It’s no coincidence that the movie received 11 Oscar nominations, even if it didn’t win any (how was that story about the Academy being dominated by a bunch of old white men?)!
Perhaps the script is a little uninspired, naturally lacking the novel’s ingenious idea of changing writing style as Celie learns to read and write. As for me, I also found the singing scene of Shug going back to his father a little too stylized (it seems to belong to a musical) in a film that otherwise treats everything with a lot of realism, and I think that the part of Nettie in Africa it could also have been cut as it’s not particularly deep. Perhaps the finale in which the sisters reunite would’ve been even more powerful if we hadn’t seen anything about Nettie and Celie’s children (although something had to be shown, once the hidden letters were found).
But these are tiny details, this is another of those films that everyone should see to realize that many of today’s problems have roots in the past (racism, of course, but also other types of intolerances and taboos) and that serious structural solutions are needed to solve them. Ciao!