The Color Purple opens with a shot of a beautiful field of lavender flowers; then the camera tilts up to show two young girls playing and singing in the field. After 2 ½ hours of movie, and 30 years in the lives of its characters, this shot will have its emotional payoff in a final scene set in the very same field, among the very same flowers.
That’s getting a little ahead of things, but it’s indicative of the balance and classical construction that fills this movie. With this film, Steven Spielberg sheds the stigma of being a kiddie director—one which he didn’t really deserve anyway—and puts his hands on the best director Oscar that’s eluded him for years.
That’s right, you can send the statuette to Steve’s house now, and save everybody a lot of trouble. At this admittedly early date, it’s hard to imagine The Color Purple in anything but a sweep of the year’s awards—for a few of the actors, for Allen Daviau’s cinematography, and for Quincy Jones’ music.
Jones is also the film’s executive producer, and the man who secured the rights to Alice Walker’s novel in the first place. He also hired Spielberg, which was a brilliant stroke; few other directors could discover such a sense of life within the melodramatic and painful events of the story.
The story spans 30 years. We first meet Celie as a 14-year-old girl about to give birth to her second child—both products of her father’s rapes. He gets rid of the children, and he soon gets rid of Celie, by marrying her off to a local widower farmer, known to her only as Mister.
It’s a violent union. He beats her, and throws her younger sister out of the house. Over the years, Celie grows accustomed to this treatment, and even to the fact that Mister’s mistress, Shug, moves into the house with them. Shug, a juke-joint singer, turns out to be a friend to Celie—after her sister, the only friend Celie has known.
Other characters weave in and out: Harpo, Mister’s oldest son, and his boisterous wife, Sophia; Mister’s father, a mean and crotchety old man; Squeak, who vies with Sophia for Harpo’s attentions.
Spielberg’s treatment of the story at times recalls the silent rural dramas of D.W. Griffith; he uses motifs, such as the reading of letters, the singing of songs, the framing of characters in windowpanes, to trace the spiritual growth of the heroine. Celie’s habit of covering her smile with her hand, which began with her father’s opinion that she was ugly, is used in such a way that when Celie finally learns to smile with a big toothy grin, it fairly lights up the screen.
Much of that power also comes from the interestingly understated performance by comedian Whoopi Goldberg, making her film debut as Celie. Goldberg lets her eyes do much of her talking—watch especially a scene in which Shug sings a special blues song for the heretofore-ignored Celie, and the heart-melting look in Celie’s surprised, embarrassed, touched eyes.
All the performers are good—Danny Glover as Mister, and Margaret Avery as Shug, especially—and I can’t think of a single wrong or awkward note in the film.
Early in her life, Celie consoles herself from the ravages of living by saying, “This life be over soon. Heaven lasts always.” It is Walker’s contention, and Spielberg’s, that that is not enough. Eventually Celie realizes that there must be something more to existence than just existing. That realization is her triumph. That film’s triumph is in making us believe it, too.
First published in the Herald, December 22, 1985
Yeah, funny story about those sure-fire Oscars. The movie got 11 nominations and no wins, and Spielberg was not nominated. (Out of Africa was the big winner.) I think Spielberg’s command of film language actually worked against him here, and the movie might have puzzled people looking for a different kind of approach.