Warner Bros. // 1985 // 153 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 25th, 2011
It's about life. It's about love. It's about us.
"I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."
Celie Harris (Desreta Jackson, Sister Act) is a 14-year-old African-American girl living in the Deep South in the early part of the 20th Century. Her life has been difficult from the beginning, as her Pa (Leonard Jackson, Boomerang) is an abusive man who frequently takes advantage of her sexually. She's just given birth to her second child by her father, though Pa refuses to let Celie keep her children.
One day, a man only known to Celie as "Mister" (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon) comes by the house, declaring that he needs a new wife since his first spouse passed away recently. He has his eye on Celie's more attractive sister Nettie (Akosua Busia, Rosewood), but Pa wants Nettie for himself. Mister takes Celie as a consolation prize and introduces her to an entirely new living hell. He beats her, demands that she work endlessly to meet his every need and uses her to fulfill his sexual desires whether she likes it or not (though that doesn't stop him from sleeping with other women when he wants to).
As Celie grows into adulthood (and is played by Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost), she meets a variety of fascinating individuals and faces a series of difficult personal challenges. Is there any hope that she will ever find some measure of freedom and happiness?
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple is not so much a story of what life was like for an African-American woman living in the Deep South in the early 20th Century, but rather a story of what that kind of life felt like. The film is told from an intensely emotional point-of-view, occasionally missing minor details but capturing the larger feelings of important moments in Celie's life. The film has been roundly criticized in some circles for a wide variety of reasons (some of those criticisms are legitimate and I'll address them shortly), but its occasional failings are overwhelmed by its moments of triumph. There are scenes of incomparable beauty in The Color Purple, and these are the scenes that define one's memories of the film.
For a while, it seems as if the film is going to be little more than a catalogue of horrors. Celie's life seems to be one terrible situation after another, as she is repeatedly raped, beaten, overworked and cut down by those around her. In the early days, the only bright spot in her life is her relationship with Nettie. Sadly, that is soon taken away from her, too. However, The Color Purple is not a story about how terrible life was for women like Celie during this era (and it was indeed terrible), but rather a story about Celie's resilience and triumph over her circumstances. This is a film in which something as small as a smile or a contradictory sentence has the thrill of an epic victory. The movie is an unqualified success in terms of allowing us to understand Celie and making us feel for her, and we feel as if we are taking each step forward with her.
Whoopi Goldberg's career is marked by a lot of misfires and disappointments (to her credit, she's remained very active despite her bombs), but her breakout performance in The Color Purple would seem to mark the arrival of a truly great actress. Even though she is now a well-known figure (co-hosting The View and still popping up in lots of movies/TV shows), Whoopi still disappears in the role of Celie and turns in a beautifully subtle performance. It's a quiet, understated role that is in many ways the film's most challenging, as Goldberg must convey what Celie is feeling without being given many opportunities to assert herself or even speak. Goldberg modulates her performance very carefully, so when she beams joyfully or makes that memorably defiant gesture towards Mister, it has remarkable effect.
The supporting cast is loaded with solid performances, but the other crucial performance is that of Oprah Winfrey as the strong-willed Sofia. Winfrey is so vital and assured during her early scenes; that vitality only enhances the heartbreak of the later scenes in which Sofia is a tired, broken woman. The later moments featuring her character are almost unbearably painful to watch. Danny Glover does fine work as the complicated Mister; skillfully essaying the character's simultaneous brutality and ignorance. Margaret Avery offers a superbly layered performance as juke joint singer Shug Avery, who initially comes across as a pompous diva but later reveals herself to be a deeply sensitive, wounded soul. The scenes Avery shares with Goldberg are particularly strong.
Although 1993's Schindler's List is often credited as Spielberg's first foray into "serious" filmmaking, that journey really started with this film. While it definitely has the feel of Spielberg's earlier work in many ways, it's a significant step in a new direction for him. One of the reasons producer Quincy Jones wanted Spielberg for the project was that he had been able to bring such intense emotion to little moments of connection in E.T., and Spielberg delivers those deeply emotional moments once again in this film. On a visual level, the film is as elegantly well-staged as anything the director has done, and he paces it in a manner that never allows it to feel overlong even with a running time of over two and a half hours.
The Color Purple arrives on Blu-ray sporting a respectable 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that ranks as a considerable improvement over the DVD release. Spielberg's warm, lush palette is well-captured by this disc, which offers impressive depth and solid detail. There are times when the image is a bit soft, but this is entirely due to the manner in which the film was shot. No flecks or specks are present and the film generally looks much sturdier than you would expect it to considering its age. The audio never really does anything remarkable, but Quincy Jones' sentimental score (curiously enough, it sounds very much like the sort of thing John Williams might have written had he been tapped to score the film) mostly sounds very good (a couple of cues sound a bit wobbly) and the dialogue is clear throughout. The supplements are a handful of worthwhile featurettes ported over from the previous DVD release: "Conversations with Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen" (26 minutes), "A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple" (29 minutes), "Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple" (23 minutes) and "The Color Purple: The Musical" (7 minutes). You also get some photo galleries, theatrical trailers and the handsome "Blu-ray Book" packaging (with some 40 pages of photos, behind-the-scenes info, cast bios, etc.).
I mentioned earlier that The Color Purple sometimes misses minor details. In one sense they are minor, but at the same time they are significant. Spielberg's portrait of Georgia circa 1909-1933 is a rather romanticized one at times, as Celie's surroundings mostly seem to be lush, endless fields of flowers and natural beauty. Mister is technically a farmer, but we never really see him doing any farming. Given his laziness, it's a wonder that he's able to live in relative comfort and bring in steady income each year. It's also doubtful that the local juke joint would have been within shouting distance of the local church, but such a thing is required in order to set up an elaborate musical number (admittedly, this is a superb moment in the film).
The two elements of the film that have been most criticized are the way the lesbian relationship between Shug and Celie is handled and the way the film depicts African-American men. The former doesn't particularly bother me, though even Spielberg admits that he wishes he had been bolder in the depiction of that relationship. The book gets very explicit in terms of sexuality, but Spielberg's PG-13 film is attempting to reach a wide audience and tell a story truthfully yet accessibly. Would the film have been better if it had been more explicit in some ways? Perhaps, but not significantly so.
The other criticism is warranted, however. While some have misunderstood Alice Walker's intentions in terms of her depiction of men (particularly her portrait of Mister, who is as much a victim of the misogynist education he has received as he is a villain), the fact of the matter is that The Color Purple unintentionally supports the stereotype that African-American males are lazy and buffoonish at best and absolutely repugnant human beings at worst. Even the film's most positive male character (that would be Harpo, Sofia's husband) beats his wife a few times. I realize that the film is attempting to depict the kind of negative cultural elements that played a significant role at the time, but surely they could have taken the time to offer a portrait of one or two exceptions to the rule?
Despite its flaws, The Color Purple is a commendable, moving film which deserves more respect than it does derision. This Blu-ray release does a reasonably respectable job of bringing the film to hi-def, and the film itself is highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Photo Gallery