Thursday, February 29, 2024

“THE COLOR PURPLE”

THE STORY – An epic tale spanning forty years in the life of Celie, an African-American woman living in the South who survives incredible abuse and bigotry. After Celie’s abusive father marries her off to the equally debasing “Mister” Albert Johnson, things go from bad to worse, leaving Celie to find companionship anywhere she can. She perseveres, holding on to her dream of one day reuniting with her sister in Africa.

THE CAST – Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery & Willard E. Pugh

THE TEAM – Steven Spielberg (Director) & Menno Meyjes (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 154 Minutes


An epic tale spanning forty years in the life of Celie, an African-American woman living in the South who survives incredible abuse and bigotry. After Celie’s abusive father marries her off to the equally debasing “Mister” Albert Johnson, things go from bad to worse, leaving Celie to find companionship anywhere she can. She perseveres, holding on to her dream of one day reuniting with her sister in Africa.

Steven Spielberg made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s with his action-packed blockbusters “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “ET” and the “Indian Jones” films. His boyish imagination brought exciting stories to the big screen, which translated into astronomical financial returns, and, as far as he was concerned, he could have continued down that path for the rest of his career.

But in 1985, he decided to take on “The Color Purple,” adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. His first “grown up” film, a decades-spanning tale of a Black woman rising above all the hardships in her life, struck a chord with audiences and garnered 11 Academy Award nominations. Though the film is imperfect – it struggles with its tone and doesn’t fully capture the darkness of Walker’s novel – it contains triumphant performances, mainly from star Whoopi Goldberg, and a heartfelt story of love, loss, and sisterhood.

We’re introduced to Celie (Desreta Jackson and later Goldberg in her debut performance), a shy young girl who has endured so much pain in her short life. The man she believes is her father rapes, impregnates, and takes her children away. When he basically has no use for her anymore, he marries her off to an equally awful man named Mister (Danny Glover), who also shows her no kindness as he beats her and makes her clean up after him and his rude children.

Celie’s only light in this world is her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). So when their father also tries to rape her, Nettie seeks refuge with Celie. But when Mister tries to come after Nettie, and she fights back, he kicks her out of the house. Thus begins these two sisters’ heartbreaking, decades-long separation. Though Nettie writes constantly, Mister keeps her letters away from Celie, making her think her sister is dead or has forgotten her.

Over the years, Celie endures terror and misery from Mister but finds moments of joy in the people around her. Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) is the no-nonsense woman that Mister’s son Harpo (Willard Pugh) weds. Sofia doesn’t cower to men and is unapologetically herself, which makes Celie envious, but the two later strike a bond. There’s also jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), who also happens to be the apple of Mister’s eye. This beautiful woman is initially intimidating to Celie – Shug calls her ugly the moment they meet – but they, too, come together in beautiful ways.

Goldberg portrays Celie as a very terrified woman at the start. Still, in one beautiful scene, where Celie dresses in Shug’s sequined gown and doesn’t hide her bright smile, she blossoms into a powerful woman whose energy is infectious. From then on, our leading lady doesn’t let up for the rest of the film, and it is quite thrilling when she faces off against other characters. Avery is also a great force in the film, evoking so much glamor, poise, and love, especially in her tender moments with Goldberg. Winfrey’s Sofia is also a high point in many scenes, bringing the character’s humor and headstrong nature to life.

Despite a fantastic cast and great performances, Spielberg struggles to find the right tone to take and deeply undermines the story’s serious themes. We see Mister frequently abuse Celie, and he’s a vile person to almost anyone. But when he’s getting dressed to meet Shug, he’s showcased as a funny, fumbling fool who cannot remember to put on his cufflinks or the right tie, and Celie is the one who has it all ready for him. Are we supposed to laugh and forget about all the awful things he does to those around him? Perhaps the most egregious example is how Spielberg handles what should be a heartfelt moment for Sofia. She tells the Mayor’s wife off and gets in a fight, which leads to her imprisonment. Years later, she emerges broken and disoriented and has to work for the wife. On Christmas, she offers to let Sofia spend time with her family for the first time in years. However, the emotional reunion is ruined because the Mayor’s wife is a terrible driver, and Spielberg decides to create a slapstick scene out of it. It is greatly uncalled for and takes away a beautiful moment for Winfrey to shine. At least she gets another impassioned scene later.

Spielberg also goes for a more cheery approach to Walker’s novel. His version of “The Color Purple” is filled with lovely flower fields, sprawling plains, and magical sunsets. Similarly, interior settings have a cozy feel and don’t depict the poverty these characters likely experience, like how Mister has a massive two-story home despite never being seen working. These settings are beautiful to see, but they don’t always serve the story well. It’s clear Spielberg was trying to insert the optimistic charm he used in his other blockbuster projects into this story, but it just wasn’t the right fit for him. But at least he wanted to bring this crucial novel to life, especially when few blockbusters focused on telling Black stories.

Despite its flaws, “The Color Purple” has remained a classic for nearly 40 years and has given generations a bold story to see. As the years have passed, new versions of this tale have emerged, including a Broadway musical and a new musical film adaptation, set to be released on Dec. 25. It’s clear that no matter the time, Walker’s novel will always be a powerful and necessary story to tell.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Strong performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery. A powerful story of love, loss, and sisterhood.

THE BAD - Steven Spielberg struggled with the film's tone and didn't fully capture the darkness of Alice Walker's novel.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Ema Sasic
Ema Sasic
Journalist for The Desert Sun. Film critic and awards season enthusiast. Bosnian immigrant

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Strong performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery. A powerful story of love, loss, and sisterhood.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Steven Spielberg struggled with the film's tone and didn't fully capture the darkness of Alice Walker's novel.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE COLOR PURPLE"