Thursday, February 16, 2023

Review: Spielberg's "THE COLOR PURPLE" Still Wants to Be Seen (Celebrating "The Fabelmans")

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 7 of 2023 (No. 1896) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Color Purple (1985)
Running time:  154 minutes (2 hours, 34 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13
DIRECTOR:  Steven Spielberg
WRITER:  Menno Meyjes (based on the novel by Alice Walker)
PRODUCERS:  Steven Spielberg; Quincy Jones, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Allen Daviau (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Michael Kahn
COMPOSER:  Quincy Jones
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Whoopi Golderg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Willard E. Pugh, Akosua Busia, Desreta Jackson, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Dana Ivey, Leonard Jackson, Bennet Guillory, and Laurence Fishburne

The Color Purple is a 1985 drama and period film directed by Steven Spielberg.  The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, The Color Purple, by author Alice Walker.  The Color Purple the movie focuses on an African-American woman who suffers abuse from the men in her life, but finds strength in the women close to her.

The Color Purple opens in 1909, in rural Hartwell County, GeorgiaCelie Harris (Desreta Jackson) is a teenage African-American girl living with an abusive father who rapes her.  He has already fathered two children by Celie, both of which he sold shortly after Celie gave birth.  Celie's father eventually gives her to an older man named Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), who Celie calls “Mister.”

A widower with three children, Mister initially wants to marry Celie's younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia).  Now, Mister abuses Celie, while his children also mistreat her.  One day, Nettie arrives at Mister's door, thrown out after rejecting her father's advances.  Nettie eventually also has to fight off a rape attempt by Mister, who promptly throws her off his property.

In the years and decades that follow, an adult Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), grown meek from years of abuse, finds strength in two other women.  The first is Mister's daughter law, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey).  The second is a woman Mister once wanted to marry, jook joint singer, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery).  For Celie, however, there are still great secrets from her past that will eventually be revealed.

It had been nearly 37 years since I last watched The Color Purple.  I cried so much during the first time I saw it that I had not been able to watch it again until now.  Over the years, I planned to view it a number of times, especially during the twentieth (2005) and twenty-fifth (2010) anniversaries of its original release.  It is also one of my favorite directorial efforts by Steven Spielberg.  I forced myself to watch it again because of my “celebration” of the release of Spielberg's recent autobiographical film, The Fabelmans.

The film's themes of domestic violence, pedophilia, and sexism still resonate, and, for me, the themes of racism and sexism seem to have strengthen with time.  The screenplay does so much to emphasize these themes that it is as if it creates a world within the larger world where abuse and degradation are the natural order.  Over the years, I have encountered people, mostly black men, who say that the film makes black men look bad.  I say that the film makes an honest portrayal of the abuse that black women faced in the past – from both black and white men.  [Over time, I have spoken with African-American women who personally knew older African-American women whose experiences are of the exact kind of abuse faced by Celie, Nettie, Sofia and other women in the film.]

That aside, I consider The Color Purple to be one of Spielberg's most subtle efforts as a director.  Some contemporaneous commentary said that the film was overly sentimental, but I find that Spielberg allows the film's narrative and characters to grow naturally from the screenplay.  In collaboration with his longtime editor, the Oscar-winning Michael Kahn (nominated here), Spielberg creates the illusion that he is simply capturing the evolution of Celie's tale from its harsh beginnings to its golden-hued happy ending.  The Color Purple feels organic … although I don't think anyone would have described it as such when it was first released.

One of the most impressive things about The Color Purple is that two its best performances are by actresses who have little or no acting experience – Whoopi Golderg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia.  Spielberg gets these performers to create characters that are unique in form and substance.  To me, characters like Celie and Sofia seem so genuine because they were utterly new to American cinema, and truthfully, there has been nothing like them since.

Truthfully, all the film's performances are unique and winning.  Margaret Avery amazingly makes her Shug Avery an oasis in the often relentless pain of this film.  Danny Glover is also brilliantly cruel as the awful Mister, and Willard Pugh is sweet and charming as his son and Sofia's husband, the hapless Harpo.

At the 58th Academy Awards, The Color Purple did not win in any of the 11 categories in which it was nominated.  In fact, Steven Spielberg did not even receive a “Best Director” Oscar nomination.  In the decades since its release, The Color Purple remains as relevant today as it was being a historical and monumental release in 1985 and 1986.  The films that bested it at the Oscars are largely forgotten compared to it.  Alice Walker's novel was also adapted into a 2005 Broadway musical, and the film adaptation of that musical is scheduled for release later this year (2023), as of this writing.

As a triumph in Spielberg's filmography, some may discount The Color Purple, considering the films Spielberg has made since then (such as Schindler's List).  Still, as a line in the film says (more or less), The Color Purple wants to be seen and loved … and it still is.

10 of 10

Thursday, February 16, 2023

1986 Academy Awards, USA:  11 nominations: “Best Picture” (Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and Quincy Jones), “Best Actress in a Leading Role” (Whoopi Goldberg), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Margaret Avery), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Oprah Winfrey), “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” (Menno Meyjes), “Best Cinematography” (Allen Daviau), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” (J. Michael Riva, Bo Welch, and Linda DeScenna), “Best Costume Design” (Aggie Guerard Rodgers), “Best Music, Original Song” (Quincy Jones-music/lyrics, Rod Temperton-music/lyrics, and Lionel Richie-lyrics for the song “Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)”), “Best Music, Original Score” (Quincy Jones, Jeremy Lubbock, Rod Temperton, Caiphus Semenya, AndraĆ© Crouch, Chris Boardman, Jorge Calandrelli, Joel Rosenbaum, Fred Steiner, Jack Hayes, Jerry Hey, and Randy Kerber), and “Best Makeup” (Ken Chase)

1987 BAFTA Awards:  1 nomination: “Best Screenplay – Adapted” (Menno Meyjes)

1986 Golden Globes, USA:  1 win: “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Whoopi Goldberg); 4 nominations: “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” “Best Director - Motion Picture” (Steven Spielberg), “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Oprah Winfrey), and “Best Original Score – Motion Picture” (Quincy Jones)

1986 Image Awards (NAACP):  2 wins: “Outstanding Motion Picture” and “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture” (Whoopi Goldberg)

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