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The Color Purple
Directed by Steven Spielberg
At the Harvard Square Theatre and the
THIS IS ONE instance where black and white would have been better than color. The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker's gritty but triumphant novel and Steven Spielberg's debut directing a "serious" film, suffers from too much technicolor, too much flash in the face of the book's grimy realism. Spielberg transforms scenes that portrayed the grim existence of Southern agrarian Blacks into fields of dreamy and idealistic color that resemble an explosion at an Izod Lacoste factory more than they do images of rural life in backwoods Georgia.
Purple focuses on the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), the film's protagonist, as told by her in a diary addressed to God. In the opening scenes, we see her giving birth to a child by her father and being married off to a man she doesn't know. This is pretty horrible stuff, especially for a sixteen-year-old, but some of the disgust we are meant to feel is lost among the wash of color and high quality production. Unable to communicate subtly the extent of the father's shortcomings, Spielberg is forced to rely on a line from the script in which father tells daughter to "hurry up" while she's in labor.
As the movies gets prettier and prettier, Celie's life gets worse and worse. Her new husband beats her and separates her from her best friend and sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia). "Mister" (Danny Glover), as she affectionately refers to her betrothed, proves to be a real downer: he steals Celie's mail, sleeps around with other women, and makes his wife do ninety-percent of the work on their farm. At the film's halfway point, Celie is still cleaning vividly-hued ketchup and mustard stains while the tyrant goes off to try to rekindle an old romance with a famous blues singer.
SURPRISINGLY ENOUGH, THIS emerges as the turning point of the plot. The singer, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), takes more of a liking to Celie than to the boorish Mister. This torch singer with a heart of gold teaches Celie how to have pride and how to stand up for herself. Gradually, under Shug's tutelage, Celie begins to initiate convert acts of household terrorism like spitting into drinks of water and lemonade. Shug also enjoys special privileges in the House of Mister-including getting the mail-and thus Celie is able to receive a long-awaited letter from her sister.
One major difference between the book and the film's version of the relationship between Celie and Shug is that its lesbian aspect, which made the book somewhat infamous, is here largely absent. Missing is Celie's narration of her sexual affairs with Shug, a very interesting and poignant part of Walker's novel. As Mister's household begins to disintegrate under the combined influence of Shug and Celie, the movie increasingly degenerates into cheap sentimentality. Celie learns that Nettie and her own two children by her father are living as missionaries in Africa. As a result, we are treated to dream sequences of elephants crashing through the fields of Georgia. This is one of the film's most colossal flaws: whenever Spielberg has trouble interpreting the text, he slips into the trademark Raidersesque exoticism and trick camera shots-gimmickery which has made him famous but which destroys the tone of the story.
The one exception to this misplaced descent into escapism concerns the scene in Which Celie finally severs her ties with Mister, calling him a creep and setting off with Shug to build a new life. For these few minutes, Spielberg achieves the mix of realism and spiritual triumph that elsewhere evades him. The movie ends with a reunion scene between Celie and Nettie, an obvious Spielbergian tear-jerker that would have been pardonable had the rest of the movie followed a different course.
TO BE FAIR, Spielberg faced an almost impossible task in dealing with this movie. Adaptations of novels are harder to perfect than are original screenplays. The Color Purple poses an especially difficult problem for the potential adaptor, both because the book was widely read and because it adheres to the problematic first-person narrative format. Spielberg seems to realize the latter difficulty and attempts to avoid that puzzle simply by abandoning Celie's first-person narration within the first half hour of the movie. Another difficulty is length. The movie clocks in at two and a half hours, approximately the same time it takes to read the novel: Purple may well be the first example of film adaptation in which one saves time by reading the book.
Spielberg's biggest mistake, though, was not resurrecting good ol' black and white film. He would have lost none of Walker's spirituality. And the realism of The Elephant Man or Raging Bull could have been his.
If reading gives you the hives or makes important limbs fall off your body, the movie is still worth seeing. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Whoopi Goldberg a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Goldberg has the perfect face for Celie, capable as she is of transforming the worried lines of meekness and suffering into a stiffled grin and a twinkle in the eye that belie convert amusement and joy. Also creating a reserve of depth is Adolph Caesar as Mister's father, the swaggering, comic fool who sires the story's principal tyrant. In fact, some of the film's most engaging moments are those featuring the minor and often humorous characters that Walker used to show the absurdity of Celie's situation.
Maybe someday, if future directors remember black and white, the complexity of Walker's novel will be better served. Until then, for those who read the book, The Color Purple remains a technicolor yawn.
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