The Color Purple (1985)
(for intense thematic material, sexual material, brief nude images, and some disturbing content)
Released: December 18, 1985
Runtime: 153 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Willard E. Pugh, Akosua Busia, Dana Ivey
Rarely has there ever been such a stark dividing line in a filmmaker’s career (especially coming on the heels of The Temple of Doom) than The Color Purple. Yes, the dramatic departure is there in content, subject and themes but, more significantly, it’s also in sheer contrast to who Spielberg was as a person himself.
In virtually every respect (with the possible exception of racism), the marriage here between material and maker is completely against type. After all, what business did a single, Jewish, fatherless, wealthy icon – who was famous for his late 20th Century blockbuster popcorn flicks – have tackling a book about the struggle and abuse of early 20th Century African-American women and mothers, and the sisterhood that binds them?
Recently, in his commencement speech to the 2016 Harvard graduating class, Spielberg talked about The Color Purple in more detail than any of his other films, and shared what compelled him:
- “Up until the 1980s, my movies are what you could call escapist…but I was in a celluloid bubble. My worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me. But then I directed The Color Purple, and this one film opened my eyes to experiences that I never could’ve imagined, and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths…my gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths.”
That personal revelation (and humble conviction) shines through. This is a confident departure for Spielberg, not a tepid one, into whole new territory. Like the great directors, he doesn’t change his style to fit pre-conceived or conventional notions about how this kind of material should be presented. He makes it his own, and that’s how Spielberg gets to – and honors – these truths. By being honest and true to himself as an artist, his film sincerely reveals what is honest and true within the story.
What’s particularly affecting about The Color Purple – and virtually singular within the canon of stories about the African-American experience – is that it’s about the oppression, the de facto slavery, within turn-of-the-century Black America as expressed through that culture’s abusive patriarchy. Considering all that African-Americans endured during slavery and its ongoing aftermath, it’s a wretched and cruel irony indeed to see black fathers effectively sell off their daughters to black husbands, and for those husbands to treat their wives like property, even to the point of beating them into submission. Black men were still oppressed by racist laws and societal mores outside their homes, but women had it coming and going.
This theme, no doubt, was decisive in Alice Walker’s original novel being awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It’s also what makes it sadly relevant today. Deadbeat African-American fathers remain a modern scourge upon that community; some can’t “own” the women they use or children they father, so they leave them. Same curse, still latching on across generations, incarnating itself through a different but still tragic expression.
For as dark and sobering as this rarely observed historical reality is, it’s the power of feminine strength, resolve, and support for each other – through trial and bondage – that lifts our souls along with theirs. Spielberg doesn’t just sympathize with these women; he’s inspired by them. By how they navigate irreconcilable demands, suffer unjust brutalities, and survive.
Yet it’s by displaying their empowerment in tender, lyrical ways – rather than placing them up on some contrived wish-fulfillment pedestal – that Spielberg and his actresses let us see not just the strength of these women, but their beauty.
The writing of letters. The comfort of a needed word or touch. Finding refuge with some, while being torn apart from others. At times, taking a necessary stand. Or even, as in one surreal gesture by Celie toward her violent and demanding husband Albert, the suggestion of mystical power.
That Spielberg would rely on a pair of screen-acting neophytes in two of the story’s three most crucial roles – Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, in stunning feature film debuts – showed some conviction of his own, not to mention a profound instinct for what the material needed and who would make it come alive. Goldberg and Winfrey both received Academy Award nominations for their performances, each losing, and a particularly galling oversight on behalf of Whoopi who, as it goes with these kinds of things, would be compensated with an Oscar for a less-challenging effort in Ghost. If anyone had any doubts that Spielberg was the right director for this adaptation, his courageous casting in those two roles alone proved that he was.
Indeed, in the hands of lesser, pandering hands, The Color Purple would’ve been cheap overwrought melodrama with a heavy dose of pretense. Through Spielberg’s eyes, however, it’s unflinching; at times, absolutely tear-your-heart-out gut-wrenching. And that ending. It’s an absolute emotional wringer, in the best way, yet overall the movie never bears the trace of some desperate Oscar-grab (despite how easily it could have).
Through Spielberg’s lens it’s also beautiful cinema – along with some humor, charm, and sass (and occasionally raucous) – discarding some familiar and comfortable creative arrows from his filmmaking quiver while taking out classic ones from legendary influences (most notably John Ford’s earthy, common man epic sweep). The director’s newest arrow was composer Quincy Jones (a legend himself), who also produced.
Some critics were quick to brand Spielberg’s take on Walker’s novel as sentimental, and not in a good way. Some still do. While it does soften the more adult – and culturally polarizing – elements from the source (most notably the novel’s brief lesbian encounters between Celie and Shug, which were reflections on and outcomes of the abusive patriarchy), I think branding the whole piece as saccharine or safe isn’t only unfair but almost objectively inaccurate. For the first time in his career, Spielberg trades in sentiment for empathy. He does so to profound effect, with material he seemingly couldn’t be more ill-suited for.
The late film critic Roger Ebert, in his memoir Life Itself, spoke of the movies as an Empathy Machine:
- “We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
To his words could also be added, “And so it is with The Color Purple.”
- The Color Purple had one of the best and worst showings in Academy Award history. On the good side, it led all films that year with 11 nominations, just 3 shy of the all-time record (although Spielberg wasn’t one of them; in a major shock, he was snubbed by the Directing branch). It was also the first PG-13 movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture. On the down side, and in another major shock, it didn’t win a single award. It remains the biggest shutout in Oscar history. (That infamous distinction is shared with 1977’s The Turning Point, which also went 0-for-11.; re: Peter Chattaway – thank you! )
- This was the first film that Spielberg directed for Warner Bros. studios.
- It was also the first to be produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
- This marked cinematographer Allen Daviau’s third collaboration with Spielberg. The first was Steven’s debut short Amblin’, and the other was just three years prior on E.T.
- This was the first Spielberg film to not be scored by John Williams (excluding Steven’s anthology contribution to the episodic Twilight Zone feature, which was scored by Jerry Goldsmith).
- Screenwriter Menno Meyjes would later develop the story for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with George Lucas (although that screenplay would be written by Jeffrey Boam).
- Winfrey only won the role of Sofia after Nell Carter and Jennifer Holliday (of Dreamgirls fame) turned it down. Similarly – Tina Turner, Lola Falana, and Diana Ross all turned down the role of Shug.