Whether you see it as exploitative or purely appropriate, home video distributors devote a significant percentage of their January and February output to films that celebrate or can be celebrated for Black History Month. Much to my disappointment, the release of Spike Lee's truly amazing 'Malcolm X' was delayed due to music rights issues (we can guess it might have been his use of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"). But a worthy companion piece showed up on Blu-ray last week: Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, 'The Color Purple.'
Embarrassingly, it was one of the very few Spielberg movies I'd actually never seen. (When a black friend announced this fact to his Facebook friends, the comments almost uniformly offered the only possible excuse I could have for not having done so: that I'm white.) But Warner Brothers' new digibook Special Edition not only offered me an overdue chance to patch this gaping hole in my appreciation of the filmmaker's body of work, but to see if its decades of acclaim were in fact all they were cracked up to be. All of which is why 'The Color Purple' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on December 18, 1985, 'The Color Purple' was a significant box office hit for Spielberg, earning some $142 million against its $15 million production budget, and following two other huge hits, 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' and 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.' The film received numerous nominations and awards from a variety of critics' groups and industry organizations, including an Outstanding Achievement in Direction from the Director's Guild of America, five Golden Globe nominations (Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Score, and Actress, the latter of which Whoopi Goldberg won), and eleven nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best Score, Makeup, Costume Design, Cinematography, Art Direction, Best Actress for Goldberg, and two Supporting Actress nominations for Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery), although it won none.
The film also continues to enjoy an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Although I have not read Alice Walker's novel of the same name, Spielberg's adaptation appears to tell precisely the story it intends to – namely, the triumph of a woman who overcomes a literal lifetime of abuse from men to become empowered and self-confident. Its depiction of her eventual victory is as glorious as the indignities she suffers are horrifying, and in spite of the need to portray her oppressors as (quite rightly) terrible people, Spielberg gives even the male characters a dimensionality and a humanity that doesn't make them sympathetic, but does allow their behavior to be understood.
The performances by the three actresses at the center of the film are uniformly brilliant, starting with Goldberg as Celie. It seems shocking now to think of the actress as a newcomer, but in this, her debut performance, Goldberg connects with the full range of Celie's emotions, both her withdrawn, fearful obedience and her eventual, resilient fury, finding the connective tissue in much more than just the fact that it's the same person providing all of these different colors. Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey is truly stunning as the force of nature, Sofia, whose spirit is tragically broken both in spite and because of her fiery independence. The fact that she withdraws and becomes subservient for a significant portion of the film's running time is its secondary plot line, but one that reinforces its primary theme, which is that these women at this time in history and within this society were treated as second- or third-class citizens, if they were treated as humans at all.
Finally, there's Margaret Avery as Shug Avery, an attention-grabbing performer whose own celebration of life both inspires Celie to find her own happiness and allows Celie to rescue her from self-destruction. Avery communicates every aspect of the godless jezebel that she is as a successful singer, as she does the young rebellious woman looking desperately for approval from her minister father. But it's her relationship that effectively cements the two opposite forces of Celie and Sofia, not only because she helps Celie harness her own inner strength in the service of taking care of an exuberant but sick woman, but shows Celie that she can live a life as full and satisfying as Sofia without necessarily being quite as volatile or unrepentant.
What Doesn't Work: I find it interesting that there were (and perhaps still are) some objections to the film's portrayal or representation of black stereotypes, which it certainly supports in the sense that people can find examples if they believe that black men are violent, uncaring thugs, or that black women have children out of wedlock. I don't see these characterizations as a reinforcement of those stereotypes, however; rather, they seem to merely be an accurate representation of who the characters in Walker's novel are, and what precisely they do.
It seems as if it would be more profane to, say, change the ethnicity of the characters in order to avoid these stereotypes, but as a whole Spielberg's adaptation seems to be interested in remaining faithful at least to the general qualities of the characters in the source material, rather than subscribing to a sense of political correctness. Not to mention that doing something like changing the characters' ethnicities might undermine the dramatic and social context of their eventual triumph over the forces that oppress them.
In terms of the question whether or not Spielberg should have directed an adaptation of a significant work by an African-American author, I don't see it as a relevant objection to the film's merits as a whole, although it's fair to say that certainly it would be preferable to see an African-American filmmaker be able to take ownership of a text from his or her own cultural background and bring it to the screen to and for mainstream audiences. But the only problem I have with Spielberg's direction of the film is his consistent (throughout his career) overuse of sentimentality to pay off dramatic conflicts; flourishes like Celie throwing golden (chocolate) coins off of the back of a train to a black child running after it just seem over the top, whether or not they were in the source material. At the same time, his wrap-up of some of the plot-lines, in particular his sensitive, understated handling of Danny Glover's "Mr." feels like something only he could have managed, specifically because of his own sensitivity and empathy as a filmmaker.
What's The Verdict: 'The Color Purple' is an amazingly powerful, beautiful, and significant film, and it holds up beautifully today, especially via Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray, which looks absolutely gorgeous. Although Spielberg's tendency to gild the lily emotionally occasionally creates moments that feel overpoweringly melodramatic where they need to be at least a bit more understated, he does a wonderful job creating a richly detailed and deeply evocative portrait of a time, place, and feeling that still needs to be shared by people, especially those outside the black community. And, for better or for worse, that was probably Spielberg's biggest impact on the material –- to give it a visibility and an importance in the mainstream that not only catapulted its ideas and issues to the forefront, but kept them there as something to be seriously considered as much as they are artistically appreciated.