The Color Purple (1985)
Plot: (based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel) The life of Celie, a black woman growing up in the early 20th century who, separated from her sister, endures abuse from her father and then her husband, but finds her inner strength with the help of the strong women in her life.
Seen It Before?: Read the book, but had always avoided the movie because I wasn’t sure it would do the book justice. Boy was I ever wrong!
Writing (8): The film is paced beautifully. There are a few elements that were toned down from the novel, but overall, the themes of the book are respected very well. The dialogue has a natural quality to it (something Spielberg brings out very well) while still retaining the rhythms and content of Walker’s beautiful prose.
Adapting novels to the screen is hard to do well, and this is one of the better ones I’ve seen.
Acting (10): Whoopi Goldberg’s performance is absolutely heart-breaking. The audience feels her fear of Albert as well as her joy when Shug helps her find her sister’s letters. The beauty of the book is seeing Celie discover her strength, and Goldberg brings that discovery to life so well. You just want to cheer for her.
Margaret Avery is a delightful Shug. She’s got the rough edges as well as the warmth that draws Celie out of her shell.
Huge kudos to Oprah Winfrey for her incredible portrayal of Sofia. The fact that she didn’t win an Oscar for her performance is just tragic. The scene at the dinner table at the end when she comes back to life is one of the most joyous things ever.
I also have to give a shout out to Danny Glover. Albert is such a despicable character, and so it’s hard to like him, but I like how Glover gives the character a helping of humanity that lets us see the man he could have been. He’s terrifying and tragic, but we see flashes of potential that he wastes in his selfish fixation on Shug at the expense of the respect he should be giving his wife. He does do the right thing at the end
Visual Style (9): There are so many iconic symbols and moments that stand out, giving this the suitable scope and sweep of Walker’s original novel. I know Alice Walker objected to the first scene, saying it was too “Oklahoma” but I love how it presents all of the film’s themes in one moment before we see Celie brought down to her lowest low. And that scene is echoed in the scenes near the end when Celie is able to find that joy again.
I also love how the film uses color. When Celie is at her lowest, the colors are very muted and dark, but once she finds her strength, the color returns to the world.
Music (9): It’s weird not to have John Williams’ scoring a Spielberg film, but it’s all good! Quincy Jones does a beautiful job of creating a sweeping symphonic score that brings out the emotions of Celie’s journey, as well as writing many of the songs sung in the film such as Shug Avery’s “Miss Celie’s Blues” and the amazing “Maybe God is Tryin’ to Tell You Somethin'” from the finale. Both musical styles complement each other well, though it’s the vocal pieces that stay with you the most. I can definitely see why the story was adapted to a stage musical.
Genre (8): Everything about this film works together beautifully. The humor arises organically from the situations just as the more terrifying moments. My only real issue is that everything is sort of softened from the book. Celie and Shug’s relationship, which is much more explicitly addressed in the book becomes more of a girl-talk bonding moment. It’s still a sweet moment, but it is played a bit safe. Also, Albert’s abuse of Celie feels a lot less brutal. Albert is terrifying in the book, but the film makes him more of a comic inept character. I like how the film highlights his insecurity and fragile masculinity, but it misses out on just how evil his treatment of Celie is.
I suppose the cohesion this film has comes from smoothing things out and softening the extremes of joy and terror from the book. I know Spielberg initially didn’t think he could do the book justice, so it’s very obvious that he’s playing thing’s safer than he did in Close Encounters where the emotional dynamics kept the film from finding a more stable center.
Overall Thoughts: A beautiful, inspiring film that does right by the novel, even if it plays things a bit safe.
Total Score: 44/50
- E.T. (45)
- The Color Purple (44)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
- Jaws (42)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
- The Sugarland Express (35)
- 1941 (27)
Next week, we’ll be looking at Empire of the Sun. See you then!