Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Color Purple" Revisited

I know there are a lot of people who were profoundly moved by the film version of "The Color Purple".  It was a movie I wanted very much to connect with. But my honest gut feeling kept me from engaging with it, and I wanted to analyze my thoughts and feelings as to why I resisted it.

I left my first screening of "The Color Purple" feeling annoyed, offended even.  Not for the intensity of its subject matter, but for the filmmaker's almost cavalier approach to the suffering of its characters.  The film seemed intent on being a Disney-fied, feel-good experience about incest, child abuse, marital violence, and the debasement and empowerment of women.  It went for slapstick over sensitivity, uplift over honest reflection.

Alice Walker's novel, written as a series of letters from Celie to God, and to Celie from her long-lost sister Nettie, was raw and intrinsically moving. To see Steven Speilberg's film version was like seeing a Rembrandt done in crayons using primary colors; the shadings were gone.

Audiences loved this movie, were passionate about it even.  People around me laughed, cried, and cheered.  The natural arc of the story called for an emotional release. But the film's betrayal of its characters kept me from the release I sought.

I re-visited "The Color Purple" this past week in honor of Oprah's "retirement".  What I found this time was an entertaining ninety minutes (stretched out to 2-1/2 hours), an honestly touching finale, and the same troublesome aspects which I saw more objectively this time, since the distant experience of reading the novel had less impact.

Steven Speilberg delivered this picture soon after his triumph with "E.T."  "The Color Purple" was to be Spielberg's first "serious" film, proof that he could tackle weightier subject matter.  While he handled the mechanics of the movie with characteristic skill, he had no real heart for this story, and resorted to his usual audience manipulation.  In fact, it is the constant uncertainty of tone that is Spielberg's, and the movie's, undoing.

This isn't the actors' fault.  In her movie debut, Whoopi Goldberg is wonderful, becoming even more convincing as Celie ages.  And yet the filmmakers try to make her "cute", and "lovable".  Spielberg's handling of the character turns Celie into this film's "ET", from the slow-tracking low angle shots, to her stricken wide-eyed awe, right down to the odd, finger-pointing curse on her abusive husband Mister.  (Nettie makes the same finger-pointing gesture earlier in the film...a distraction, rather than a reasonable character trait.)  

Goldberg usually triumphs over Spielberg's missteps. She mostly communicates her fear and joy  wordlessly.  Her final scene is undeniably heart-rending. But too often, the script and the director surround Goldberg with broad-comic gimmicks: flying plates; a kitchen contraption right out of "Swiss Family Robinson"; and some old-married-couple shtick with Danny Glover, which all seem to come from a sitcom-land far away from the desperation of Celie's situation. 

Glover, as the menacing Mister, seems merely miscast.  He is there to physically abuse Celie, and hide letters she receives in the mail that would let her know that her beloved sister is still alive.  His "redemption" at the end seems tacked on, and Glover seems lost in the film's unpleasantness, for which Mister is mostly responsible.  It's also unclear what the source of Mister's income is: there are halfhearted attempts at farming, and there are kids everywhere. The house is filled with fine linen and dishes when Celie is there, but it falls apart once she leaves, with farm animals running amok and the shutters falling off.  It's no wonder Glover the actor could not find a handle on his character.

Margaret Avery as Shug, Mister's mistress and Celie's idol, is encouraged to go over the top in her early scenes, chewing the scenery with a shrew's anger and hyena's laugh.  Suddenly, after she entertains  in a juke joint (with her singing voice dubbed), she is bathed in soft light, and dressed and coiffed like an Ebony model, for her big love scene with interesting sequence, complete with the tinkling of wind chimes.  However, by the time she becomes Celie's confidante and savior, who herself craves the love and forgiveness of her preacher Father, Avery proves to be a strong presence.

Nowhere is the mishandling of a character, and confusion over the tone of the movie, more evident than in what Spielberg does to Sofia, who is beautifully played by Oprah Winfrey.  Sofia is a large, headstrong woman who loves Harpo (Mister's son) and cannot control her fire during a conflict. Oprah gives the character a surprising pathos and honesty, but the film treats her immaturely, forcing Sofia to become the comic relief of the piece.  When Harpo and Mister discuss beating Sofia to control her, even the music treats this as just a bit of whimsy. 

It's ironic that this character, an empowered woman, is set up for laughter.  When her angry eye is turned to the camera, her fist clenches, and she hauls off on someone, it is meant to be uproarious, until her temper lands her in jail, gray-haired and swollen-eyed.  Spielberg really loses his way when Sofia is forced to give her new mistress driving lessons...I was grieving for this character, and the audience around me laughed as a crowd scurried out of the car's way during the lesson.  

It is a relief to see Oprah take Sofia out of her submissive stupor near the end. Oprah's scenes, with her strong delivery of her no-nonsense dialog, are some of my favorite in the film.  I really felt the movie glossed over Sofia's suffering.  The movie betrays this character and Oprah's strong characterization.

Speaking of the music, about twelve credited musicians contributed to the score. While there are some interesting regional sounds, the music is overbearing sometimes, reminding viewers constantly about how we are supposed to feel at every moment.  I often thought I had wandered into a fairy tale that had nothing to do with the world of this movie.

I may have set the bar too high on this film.  But then, there are such marvelous and inspired moments that I was sorry the movie could not sustain this high level of artistry overall.  Especially exciting and moving is the African sequence, in which Celie reads the letters Mister had hidden from her.  Everything comes together marvelously here, from the editing and photography (using cross-cutting to lend meaning as well as create tension) to the music and narration.  All are top-notch. This sequence, for me, helped redeem the film. 

Another wonderful shot of a railroad crew working in unison is a terrific aesthetic moment, simply there for its own sake. I also loved the train scene, with Celie throwing a handful of chocolates to a little girl who reminded her of Nettie.  That really moved me.  I wanted more of this.

So when Harpo falls through another roof in a running gag, or we are treated to a production number that seemed to be dropped in from "The Blues Brothers", or we endure another one of Celie's abuses, or the plot falls apart near the end and the passage of time becomes hopelessly confused, I wished the project had a different leader, one who kept his eyes on the details of this powerful story instead of stealing glances at the reactions of his audience.

If only Spielberg showed the same sensitivity and honesty and authenticity throughout,  as he did in the film's final scene of reunion and reconciliation. 


  1. Excellent confessional! As a great admirer of this film, I must say it was a tough read, but you make some excellent points. I sort of feel as though, and I haven't read the book so I'm hardly an expert, the whimsical feel tacked onto the movie had a lot to do with the fact that Goldberg's character sort of had a child-like view of the world, as she'd been kept from learning or growing. I thought the general feel of the movie reflected that world view. The portion I definitely have to agree with you on was the score - that's the one thing I don't particularly enjoy about the movie. You're entirely right in assessing it as overused at times.
    Great essay, as always! :)

  2. As a fan of the book, the film AND the musical, I always love reading about The Color Purple. I agree that some moments are stronger than others, and I especially agree about the passage of time -- really, in the movie, it feels like Celie suddenly started making pants.

    Yet I have to disagree on your reading of the Sofia scenes. For me, Spielberg *wisely* chooses to set her up as a comic character so as to ease the audience into the harsh reality. I feel that the novel itself treats Sofia's big brashness as comical *until* it lands her into real trouble, because that is when we realize the consequences of this "funny" behavior. I also think Oprah nails that early scene where she confronts Celie after Harpo tries to beat her, coming so soon after a lighter treatment of this subject that the audience *should* be slapped into sobriety. Now, true, there are a number of missteps with this adaptation (I think Avery's portrayal of Shug is one of them), but I actually think the handling of Sofia is one of the best parts of all.

    I agree, though, that it is far lighter than and nowhere as strong as it should be. As I said, I'm a fan, but that music...GOD. "Sister" excepted, that music's got to go. If ever there was a Best Pic nominee ripe for a remake -- with, oh I don't know, a BLACK FEMALE filmmaker at the helm -- this is it.

  3. Luke and Walter,
    Thank you both for your thoughtful and in-depth comments.
    When I try to find a film whose tone and style would work for a story like "The Color Purple", I think of something like "Sounder"...simple, quiet, simmering, and terribly emotional. Cicely Tyson's cry as her husband returns from prison has the same power as Nettie and Celie's final reunion.
    What do you think?

  4. Point well-taken. I don't think Spielberg was being insincere, so much as he was fighting the hopeless tone that would come from the plights of the women. It's like he had to underline every positive thing that happened to them, and every negative thing that happened to the men. It reminded me of the unsubtle direction of early Sidney Lumet. He learned his lesson—let tragedy "play." It lets the ultimate triumph appear that much sweeter.

  5. acematcutter@yahoo.comNovember 19, 2011 at 9:05 PM

    Please help me to find the wind chimes featured on the porch when Ceilie's
    children came to see her from Africa. Please help!!