I am not ashamed to say that I’m a huge fan of Steven Spielberg and an angry supporter of most his films. When amongst other film fans or aficionados, there is a level of snobbery aimed at Spielberg which is frankly petty, accusations raising from the fact he’s a popcorn, mainstream filmmaker, and makes, according to those people, cookie cutter movies with no defining central connection. That you can watch two Spielberg movies and not know they were directed by the same person, i.e. he isn’t an auteur. This is, of course, utter crap. To start with, just because Spielberg makes movies inside Hollywood doesn’t make him a sellout, he’s always been on the inside, he doesn’t know any different and his insider nature produces some very interesting and oddly political work.
Plus if you actually look beneath the surface of Spielberg’s films, because auteur theorists only ever look at the surface to link a director’s films together, there is a link between many of his films which is the role of father figure within the family unit. In some films this is more apparent than others but nearly every film after Close Encounters deals with these issues and this theme is almost central to the understanding of how The Color Purple is so affecting.
The Color Purple is a kind of an ‘odd one out’ in Spielberg’s career, while it deals with issues of the father role, this isn’t a film about any middle class white Americans, it is a predominantly ‘black’ film. One presumes that most liberal filmmakers in Hollywood have a ‘black’ film in them, but for various reasons don’t feel the need to or indulge in the sentimentality which Spielberg inevitably gives us in this. It was the film that kick started the whole wave of Spielberg goes serious in film.
Around this point when The Color Purple was coming about he was circling Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List and this one just happened to come first. Many critics think that Spielberg was a very odd choice for the film’s director, he was mostly associated with blockbusters which don’t atone to this more heavy subject matter.
Taking place between 1909 and 1946 in Georgia, The Color Purple is the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg in her first role), a young black girl forced into a marriage of convenience with a cruel, unfaithful widower, “Mister” (Danny Glover). As if to accelerate the merry-go-round of misery that is her life, Celie is separated from her beloved sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) and must also endure the knowledge that her two children (sired by who else but her own father) were sold at birth to a local reverend.
In dealing with this story of African-American life in the early 20th Century Spielberg does touch upon themes he’s used in other films only with white characters. Elliot was the outsider in E.T., bullied by his brother and his friends, with no immediate connection with the world in which he lives. This however goes very far into that life and the struggles faced by women in particular against men, this isn’t really a story about racial politics. Which on one level is to be commended, he’s making a mainstream story about the people and ignoring the colour of their skin. On the other hand you could kind of take Spielberg to task for deliberately avoiding the braying elephant in the room, but its nice that it doesn’t ram political opinion down your throat. Which some black filmmakers are guilty of doing.
Spielberg does however tone down a lot of the book’s explicit and frank sexuality, which in turn isn’t a fault solely of his but in the adaptation by Menno Meyjes. In the novel Celie gets involved in a lesbian relationship between her husband’s mistress Shug, played exquisitely by Margaret Avery. In terms of faithfulness and frankness of the source it is a unconfident decision. On mainstream terms, conservative Hollywood would have had a field day with Spielberg and I agree, black women engaging in lesbian sex acts wouldn’t have gone down a treat with studio execs in the 80s.
One thing to note about the film is that it is very well cast, Spielberg is world renowned for finding new talent found a belting pair of actors in Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, who owe their careers to him as well as that little known TV personality Oprah Winfrey. All of them lend a gravitas even though unknown and are shown here their natural talent. Spielberg gets weighed down is in his desire to do good and do a story justice by having his very liberal head and as a result it gets very rose tinted.
According to the stories of the behind the scenes people, this isn’t a story that Spielberg was jumping out of his seat to make. He’d tried to turn it down when associate producer Quincy Jones had first approached him, and later admitted, “I wanted to do this book because I was scared I couldn’t.” As a result, he allowed too many cooks to advise him, thereby spoiling the broth. Not only did hands on “Project Consultant” author Alice Walker hover over his right shoulder, but Jones also spent a lot of time on set and in the editing room, on the grounds that he needed to be close to the material for which he was composing the score. It’s not entirely his fault, but the final cut which Spielberg always fought for, he was never going to get in this case.
The Color Purple makes a welcome addition to Spielberg’s Blu-Ray catalogue, Allen Daviau’s cinematography is particularly stunning and it is served well by this transfer. There’s nothing overwhelmingly remarkable about the transfer, its an upgrade from the DVD as are most Blu-Ray pictures now but it is a nicely shot movie and benefits from the HD boost. The sound is great, Quincy Jones score (which I am no fan of) is given a lot of indulgence by this, you can hear every note in stunning clarity and it is mixed wonderfully.
While the Spielberg special features are never a letdown it would be nice to hear him give a commentary just once on a film. The 96 minute making of documentary is very thorough and informative, although as expected there is nothing new from what was on the Special Edition DVD. Its always great to hear Spielberg talk about his project and the enthusiasm he has for filmmaking, a good doc if disappointingly thin on any other elements.
The Color Purple is a bold effort by Spielberg and it doesn’t entirely pay off, it saw a new wave in his career of serious and sombre filmmaking which he later perfected in grander films. It is a decent watch but one of his lesser efforts.
The Color Purple is a change to Spielberg's usual material. It is gorgeously shot and features some brilliant performances.