BR: Color Purple, The (1985)

March 2, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / C

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Film: Excellent / DVD Transfer: Excellent / DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Warner Home Video / Region: All / Released: January 25, 2011

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: An African American woman struggles to maintain her dignity after being handed off to a brutal farmer in turn-of-the-century America.

Special Features: 4 Behind the Story featurettes: “Conversations with Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen” (26:39) + “A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple” (28:40) + “Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple” (23:33) + “The Color Purple: The Musical” (7:34) / Stills Galleries: Behind the Scenes + The Cast / 2 Teaser + Theatrical Trailers / DigiBook

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Review:

The Color Purple marked a watershed in Steven Spielberg’s career: after years of writing, directing, and producing family-friendly fodder with escapist themes, he took a major leap into serious drama by tackling Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in turn-of-the-century American south about a young black girl handed off in marriage by her ersatz father to a brute named Mister / Albert, where she suffers further emotional and physical indignities before finding salvation and personal redemption.

Walker’s novel dealt with incest, rape, child marriage, lesbianism, and seething racism – a fireball of controversial elements that Spielberg’s critics doubted he could tackle, being unfamiliar with the African American Experience, but with the author’s blessing, novice screenwriter Menno Meyjes (whose prior credit was the pilot for Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series) was hired to hammer out a script that found a balance between the novel’s raw elements and its core story of teen sisters Celie and Nettie, separated for 20+ because of Albert’s ruthless behaviour.

The Color Purple spans several decades, and the script jumps to specific periods where we witness Celie giving birth to the second of two children handed off for adoption, her marriage to Albert, separation from sister Nettie; meeting and developing a friendship with and attraction to Albert’s ongoing flame Shug, a juke joint singer branded a harlot by the town’s pious religious families; and the marriage of Albert’s eldest son Harpo to Sofia, a headstrong woman eventually jailed for almost a decade by the racist town after speaking her mind to the mayor’s wife.

The film’s first third covers Celie’s hard childhood, the lengthy midsection dramatizes her adult years, and the finale is a kind of wrap-up of aging and long-absent characters, Shug’s return to a moral life, and happy reunions, but whether the film works as a superb adaptation depends on how one feels about Spielberg being the best director for the job.

Even though great care went into dramatizing absurd and genuinely humorous moments to add some light to a very dark and dour story, there’s a wonkiness to what sometimes feels like a dark fable aimed at an adult audience, but told using images and inferences that make it safe for a younger set.

That may have been a deliberate ploy to render the novel into a palatable film that teachers could use in conjunction with, or in place of, the novel if the local board objected to carrying the book; or a means to bring the novel’s stale to the broadest possible audience, as was done a decade earlier when producer Quincy Jones was involved in the development of Alex Hailey’s Roots (1977) into an epic TV mini-series.

Jones was one of the credited producers of Color Purple, and one wonders if the project was ever considered for TV – perhaps cable TV – before it was distilled into a feature-length screenplay. As it stands, the film is a lush, beautifully photographed production with finely detailed sets, and breakthrough performances by Danny Glover as the nasty Albert, Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Akosua Busia as Nettie, Oprah Winfrey as the proud Sophie, Willard Pugh as Harpo, and Margaret Avery as Shug, with small roles also played by Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, and Laurence Fishburne.

However, one gets a sense of truncation in the film’s final third, when Celie discovers a plethora of Nettie’s letters, and Spielberg engages in a lengthy montage meant to illustrate Nettie’s life in Africa for which there was no room to dramatize without making the film run over 3 hours.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is its tone, and the best example is the opening scene where the two sisters play games in a field of purple flowers before being called home by their father. Spielberg’s camera is fluid, the acting elevates the scene close to the border of being precious, but the editing is modernistic – fracturing the audio and visuals into a montage that would’ve been quite powerful with just dialogue and sound effects – something akin to a Terence Malick film.

The scene is ultimately pushed into melodrama by Jones’ score, which is lush & lyrical, and written in a style that emulates John Williams’ lush orchestral writing, but with an ear towards fifties harmonies. The film is filled with these odd moments where it feels like a battle between opposing tones, and the winner depends on how a scene was mixed, edited, or acted. Some of the scenes are acted with gentleness and directed with sensitivity – such as Celie’s bedside emotional connection and pre-seduction moment with Shug after a bawdy juke joint performance – whereas others unravel with a shrillness that’s meant to impart dire emotions, but comes off as manipulative and cloying.

Spielberg also shies away from anything graphic (face smacking excepted), and the novel’s most controversial aspects – incest and rape, for example – pop up in singular references. The thinking may have been to keep the script focused on Celie’s experiences through a 20+ year period, but it is peculiar that some of the harsher elements which were dramatized in Roots – a TV production – were toned down for this film.

Ultimately the film’s enduring success and relevance depends on one’s perspective: it’s either a daring, delicately directed drama, or the African American experience sanitized through the Spielberg filter, using all the sentimental directorial tricks ported over from the director’s WASP-ish family films. In order to tackle Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg had to tackle a complex drama and discover what cinematic tool suited specific genres and subjects, but the endurance of Color Purple among audiences will likely remain uneven.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray sports a really lovely transfer with colours that glow from the screen. The sound mix is surprisingly tame, however, as though sound effects were dialed down to accommodate the dialogue and sweeping thematic passages of Quincy Jones’ final film score; even the juke joint performances lack dynamic power, as though the were tailored too well in the studio prior to playback on the film set.

The extras include four featurettes covering the writing of the novel and development of the script, Spielberg’s involvement as director, the superb cast, and the film as a kind of musical drama due to the use of songs and lyrical score. Pretty much every aspect of the film, including its reception by critics, the Oscars, and generous box office success are addressed, and while the production was undoubtedly a highpoint for everyone concerned, the film’s status as a modern classic isn’t rammed down the throats by the featurette’s makers.

The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscar Awards but won nothing, which was either a snub, or a case where the Academy felt the film’s impact wasn’t as important as its makers had intended. There was also the issue of Spielberg being ignored for a Best Director nomination, and the score being credited to Jones and a team of 11 co-composers/orchestrators, not to mention a lawsuit that alleged some borrowing from Georges Delerue theme for the 1967 film Our Mother’s House. (In retrospect, Jones’ main theme bears a greater resemblance to John Williams’ syrupy Jurassic Park theme, composed years later in 1993.)

Winfrey later produced and co-starred with Glover in Beloved, a 1998 film version of Toni Morrison’s period book, with a script co-written by Busia. Margaret Avery maintained a balance between film and TV projects, and Color Purple marked her second film for Spielberg, after her film debut in the director’s 1972 possessed house TV movie Something Evil, with a story not too dissimilar from Spielberg’s 1982 production of Poltergeist.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Poltergeist (1982) — Something Evil (1972)

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.com – Color Purple [Blu-ray]

Amazon.ca – Color Purple [Blu-ray]

Amazon.co.uk – The Color Purple [Blu-ray] [1985]

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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