The Color Purple Review

A non-stop emotional rollercoaster, The Color Purple is like Raiders of the Lost Ark with boulders and snakes replaced with beatings and rapes. Steven Spielberg, for whom this was a much-heralded journey into the world of 'serious movies', took a number of risks to bring Alice Walker's bestseller to the screen but he protects his investment by presenting the material in as commercial a way as possible as a kind of Black Feminist Blockbuster. This isn't a criticism, incidentally, as I can't see how else it could be presented but it does give the lie to the idea that this was some kind of radical departure for the most consistently successful Hollywood filmmaker of his generation.

Beginning in the winter of 1909, The Color Purple tells the story of Celie (Jackson), a young black girl raised in poverty who has already had two children at the hands of her father. Her father, eager not to lose his younger daughter Nettie - prettier and thus more eligible, both for him and a potential husband - offers Celie as a consolation prize to Mister (Glover). Mister, an illiterate bully who needs a wife to look after his wayward children, has firm beliefs that the only way to create a successful marriage is through systematic brutality and within the space of a few weeks he has begun to demean Celie to the point of complete subservience. The only pleasure she finds is in her relationship with her younger sister and even this is shattered when Nettie's refusal to be taken by Mister results in her being summarily evicted. Time passes and Celie grows up, to be played by Whoopi Goldberg, into a woman whose submission to her husband has become tempered by patience and cunning. Her belief in God gives her the grace to accept her misery and her life is given variation through her acquaintance with her stepson's wife Sofia (Winfrey), a woman who isn't about to submit to any man without a fight. Celie yearns for news of her sister but is constantly disappointed, not suspecting that Mister has been careful to hide the letters from her. Things only begin to change when her husband installs his mistress, blues singer Shug Avery (Avery), into the house and Nettie, inspired by the independence and love that the other woman gives her, begins to see that her life has possibilities she never expected.

In terms of being a Hollywood melodrama, there is a great deal of merit in The Color Purple. Most significantly, it looks simply fantastic. Allan Daviau is not a particularly distinguished craftsman, judging by his work on other films, but his work on this film is beyond criticism. One might not agree with the central decision to use soft-focus and richly saturated colours but on it's level, this is completely successful. Daviau's images are lush and ravishingly beautiful, clothed with a slight haze as if filtered through the finest muslin. The lighting is spot-on, with the interiors attaining a vivid clarity through exquisite control of shading. Daviau doesn't try to do a Willis or Surtees and make things so dark you can hardly see, choosing instead to emphasise dark hues and occasional shafts of sunlight. As for the colours, they're so vivid that they knock you out - as a passionate revelling in the emotional possibilities of colour on film, this is up there with Bigger Than Life and Leave Her To Heaven. Just look at chapter 29 and weep with admiration. J.Michael Riva's production design and Aggie Guerard Rogers' costumes also deserve all the praise they've been given. This technical command has always been the one constant in Spielberg's work - even his failures such as Hook and the dreadful Amistad have been impressive on this level.

More praise should go to the performers. Given the limitations of their roles, which I'll discuss later, they do as good a job as you could wish for. Unsurprisingly, the women do better than the men and I doubt anyone could seriously criticise Whoopi Goldberg's performance. In her first film role - gained after several years of stand-up comedy performing - she is radiantly beautiful despite being relatively plain. It's a rare case of the old cliche of inner beauty actually coming up trumps on film and she takes the camera incredibly well. Celie's gradual feminist enlightenment is well portrayed, in subtle degrees, and Goldberg's feeling for comedy - sometimes erupting in unlikely places - stops the character, and the performance, from being unbearably sentimental. Her speech near the end of the film when she finally sticks it to Mister is a great stand-up-and-cheer moment. Oprah Winfrey is equally good as the strident and courageous Sofia, carefully gauging the character's change from aggressive self-assertion to beaten down acquiescence and finally erupting into a joyous cackle during the climactic dinner table scene. As the young Celie, Desreta Jackson is extraordinarily moving, and there are nice little bits from Rae Dawn Chong in a role which has obviously been heavily cut. The main reservation I have is Margaret Avery. She's certainly not bad but she's bland and a little too self-consciously gracious once her early scenes have passed by and she shows most animation when she's singing in the prefabricated juke joint built for her by Mister.

But the men are landed with roles that I don't think any actor could triumph with. This problem is built in to the material and the screenwriter Menno Meyjes hasn't done anything to solve it. All the men, without exception, are stereotypes; either incompetent idiots or bullying sadists and given none of the complexity which is granted to the women. Danny Glover works his socks off to make Mister at least halfway believable and even manages to give him a bit of shading in the scenes where he's trying to balance his indulgent love for Shug with his contempt for Celie. But he can't do anything with the stupid slapstick scenes where he's demeaned by not being able to cook and fussing over getting ready for Shug's arrival. Other good actors like Adolph Caesar and Willard Pugh are given one-note roles which don't ask them to do much except turn up and remember the lines. However, moments standout; Pugh trying to explain to Mister how he got a black eye without revealing that Sofia gave it to him, Caesar drinking a glass of water (doctored with Celie's spit) with almost erotic relish, Bennett Guillory's sweet smile as he escapes from Mister's dinner table to join the newly liberated women.

It's this problem with the male characters that highlights the basic weakness of the film. It's basically a cartoon of feminist consciousness-raising with the women presented as long-suffering saints (even the initially obstreperous Sofia) and the men presented as sadistic bastards. You can't blame either Meyjes or Spielberg for this because it was present in Alice Walker's original novel and seems to have been entirely intentional. Walker's radical feminism is the modus-operandi of the book and you have to accept it to enjoy the book - and it's a well written and compelling novel so the reader isn't too reluctant to do this. But it's an incredibly simplistic one in terms of its presentation of relationships between men and women and, ultimately, Walker simply isn't interested in her male characters which fatally unbalances the narrative. If anything, Meyjes has toned down this to some extent, allowing Mister a tiny moment of redemption, but it's still at the heart of the film and it's a big problem if you want, as some critics do, to see this as a serious 'adult' film. Spielberg, in a New York Times interview at the time of the film's release, said that he was nervous about "doing a film about people for the first time in my career". But that's self-deceiving nonsense. There is more genuine insight into people, relationships and communities in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sugarland Express and even Jaws than you will find in the entire 150 minutes of The Color Purple. Look at CE3K - the sheer adoration it has for crazy dreamers who turn out to be the only people who are sane, the complex bonds of hope and faith which tie the UFO believers together, the painful ambivalence of Roy Neary's relationship with his family, the sheer faith it has in people's ability to find what they're looking for, even that smile of blissed-out wonder on Truffaut's face at the end. All of these speak to Spielberg's love for people in his films but you won't find any of this in The Color Purple. The characters are wooden props moving around the central figure of Celie and her fall and rise. In terms of the melodrama, this works fairly well but no-one should be trying to claim that this is a film primarily about 'people'. It's about emotional set-pieces designed to pummel the audience into submission - which is nothing to be ashamed of if it's done well but let's not pretend that this is high art. I would happily defend any of the aforementioned Spielberg movies as art - along with E.T. - because they are products of a gloriously quirky artistic imagination. The Color Purple is technically accomplished filmmaking for hire without a glimmer of personal vision anywhere, except perhaps in Daviau's cinematography.

There is also the problem with how the novel has been dramatised. The first section of the novel, dealing with Celie's letters to God, is brilliantly written and transfers to the screen reasonably well. But the central focus of the remainder of the book - Celie's redemption through love - is almost totally bungled. The exact series of events is never made entirely clear and the film crosscuts madly between stories to try and keep a sense of momentum. This works on a basic emotional level - the mistreatment of Sofia is guaranteed to send anyone with a pulse into foaming rage - but it muffles Celie's story and her exact relationship with Shug is, presumably deliberately, blurred. The book is, broadly, about how Celie's lesbian love for Shug gives her the strength to break the bonds of misogynistic sadism but you wouldn't know this from the film. Spielberg allows Celie and Shug one scene of vague sensuality and a pretty discreet kiss on the lips, but that's it. Consequently, Celie's sudden decision to defy her captor and become a liberated woman seems arbitrary and her affection for Shug is more like that of a faithful puppy than of an equality based on sexual love. I'm stressing this because it's the key failing of the film. Experiencing orgasm, for the first time, with Shug should be a huge emotional crossroads for Celie and renders her character change reasonably convincing. Spielberg, perhaps through male misunderstanding or misplaced good taste, misses out the orgasm and thus misses the point.

But let's not be too harsh. For a male director in 1985 to make a big-budget film, with no stars, about black experience during the first half of the century was pretty courageous and, whatever the problems with the film, there's no doubt that on a basic emotional level it works rather well. If it lacks complexity and nuance then one could fairly say the same about other quintessential Hollywood melodramas such as Duel In The Sun and even the immortal Gone With The Wind. At its best, the film has the power to move and enrage and it takes a very assured filmmaker to do this for 2 ½ hours while focusing on one central character. The problem is that when he suddenly tries to be a good, tasteful boy - as in the toning down of the lesbian subplot - the film stops making any kind of sense. Fundamentally, it's not a film that should be in good taste and it's Spielberg's blazing, life-enhancing essentially Hollywood vulgarity that energises the narrative and makes it compelling. Ultimately, despite the daring subject-matter, it's not a radical departure for Spielberg, it's just another exercise in audience manipulation albeit on a different level. When he remembers this, the film coheres and excites. When he forgets it, the film dribbles away into a bland puddle of respectability.

The Disc

The Color Purple was originally released on a region 2 DVD in 1998. This disc was a 'flipper' and offered only a rather poor transfer and trailers. This new release, a 2 disc special edition, is a vast improvement both in terms of technical quality and bonus features.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is, to make no bones about it, a staggeringly good transfer of an intensely visual film. The deliberately soft look of the film has been beautifully rendered on this disc and there is no loss of detail resulting from it. In fact, it's a rich and full transfer which pays due respect to the textures of the original and particularly the glorious colours. The gradations in shading in the darker interior scenes is a good indicator of how good this transfer is. No artifacting is evident and only a small amount of grain in places could be described as remotely unsatisfactory. Generally, this is reference quality and a delight to watch.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original Dolby Stereo recording of the original film. Although there isn't much here to challenge anyone's sound system, it's a nicely balanced track which has clear dialogue and presents Quincy Jones's somewhat over-nourished music score quite brilliantly. The surrounds are mostly used for background sound but this is effective and brings the viewer into the film. Bass action is very rare and mostly features in the music score. The track serves the film very well without drawing undue attention to itself and that's just what this sort of movie needs.

The first disc features the film itself and three trailers for the film; the first teaser (1'09"), which is irritatingly bombastic; the second (1'20") which is a collection of black and white stills backed by one of the songs; and the full trailer (1'21") which is unbearably pompous. Each trailer is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 format and all of them have English subtitles. Also on this first disc are a list of awards and a brief listing of the cast and crew.

The second disc contains the bulk of the bonus materials. There are four documentaries and two stills galleries. The documentaries have a combined running time of 83 minutes and bear the instantly recognisable mark of their maker, Laurent Bouzereau. Whether you like his style or not, there's no denying that he's had a major influence on the whole concept of DVD 'extras' and these documentaries are very typical in that they contain copious interview footage, follow a linear approach to the making of the film and scrupulously avoid anything even remotely controversial.

The first documentary, coming in at 26 minutes, is called "Conversations with the Ancestors: from book to screen" and consists largely of an interview about the book with Alice Walker and comments about adapting the book from Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Enthusiasm and self-congratulation prevails along with much self-justification from Walker about the male characterisations and it's all very nice and very dull. The comments from Spielberg about removing the (in my view essential) lesbian sex scene are classic examples of the higher self-delusion and are more revealing about his timidity than anything else on the second disc. Walker waxes lyrical about how much
she loves the film but read between the lines and you will find moments of doubt which could have been interestingly explored.

"A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting" is, as you'd expect, about the performers and runs 28 minutes. There are contributions from Goldberg, Avery, Glover, Winfrey and Chong and, again, it's all very sunny and pleasant. Goldberg's humour is, as with the film, a saving grace and it's easier to take the self-congratulation here because it is, generally, justified. Danny Glover bravely explains how he tried to make Mister a believable character but he doesn't quite remove doubts about the weaknesses of the character in the writing.

"Cultivating A Classic: The Making of The Color Purple" is a 22 minute hymn in praise of the film which is bearable because it contains interesting snippets from Allan Daviau, J.Michael Riva and Aggie Guerard Rogers. But, again, everything is remorselessly positive and, at the end, Spielberg graciously forgives his critics for their sins in slagging the film. It's rather depressing to think that the man who once made Jaws has now turned into Mrs Miniver.

Finally, the 8 minute "The Color Purple: The Musical" discusses Quincy Jones' contribution to the film as coordinator of the songs. Needless to say, 'Q' is given godlike status and all concerned come together in veneration. To be fair, the man himself is quite modest, which must be some achievement considering how many people are eager to tell you how wonderful he is.

There are also two stills galleries with a nice mix of publicity and production pictures. If anyone can find the advertised Storyboards, please let me know where they are.

All the documentaries are full frame with stereo soundtracks and they have English subtitles.

I've been hard on these featurettes because I feel they are too formulaic and lacking in substantial analysis. But I will also say that if you like the film or are a casual viewer interested in the making of movies then you will enjoy them and they are certainly very well produced. My mark of 8 for extra features reflects this. Splitting what might have been a very long documentary into four segments was first tried out by Bouzereau (under studio instructions) on his 2001 De Palma discs for MGM and I think it works very well. The main omission is any kind of commentary. I know Spielberg doesn't want to do commentaries but surely he wouldn't object to the cast and crew doing one or an enthusiastic critic discussing the film. Maybe Alice Walker could have contributed. Although too many commentaries - particularly for recent films - are a waste of time, when they're good they are the best of all special features and it would have been nice to have one here. I would also have liked to see some deleted scenes, since the one that Spielberg mentions in the documentary - Celie's forgiveness of Mister - sounds very interesting.

There are 39 chapter stops and a range of subtitles. The packaging is a 2-disc digipack which is nicely presented with a mix of stills and artwork.

Although I think that The Color Purple is something of a failure in terms of what it wants to do, it's entertaining, ambitious and well made and I can understand why some people - faced with a film which is so emotionally affecting - think it's a masterpiece. But it fails in too many ways and although it pretends, to quote the trailer, to be "about the hopes and dreams within us all", it isn't. What about Mister's hopes and dreams and the prejudice which has turned him into an abusive husband ? Yes, it's good to see a film specifically about women - and that's one of the brave things about the movie - but such a one-sided film shouldn't then pretend to be about 'all of us'. It's the story of Celie and on that level - as a well filmed melodrama - it works, but even then it's hobbled by timidity and the decision to omit the key 'moment of truth' from the book. However, if you like the film, or haven't seen it and want to know what the fuss is about, then this DVD is very highly recommended and is another excellent special edition from Warners.

This new edition of The Color Purple is released on the 21st July

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