With 1985’s The Color Purple, we saw a filmmaker try desperately to break out of preconceived boundaries. Over the prior decade, Steven Spielberg established himself as the master of action and fantasy films. During that period, he directed a slew of absolute classics; 1975’s Jaws, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial all stand as masterpieces. 1984’s Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was good but not in that league, and Spielberg created a total dud with 1979’s 1941.
Still, it was a terrific run, but apparently Spielberg felt frustrated with these niche presentations. As such, he took on The Color Purple, a novel by Alice Walker. This seemed like an improbable project for the extremely whitebread Spielberg, as it involved the tale of a black heroine. None of Spielberg’s prior to flicks featured any racial minorities in the lead, and his experiences with women had been limited as well; 1974’s The Sugarland Express featured Goldie Hawn in a prominent role, but Purple was the first occasion during which a woman would really have to carry a Spielberg film.
Purple focuses on the tale of two young girls, Celie (played by Desreta Jackson as a child and Whoopi Goldberg as an adult) and Nettie (Akousa Busia). Celie’s stepfather sexually abuses and eventually impregnates her. After the stepfather refuses to allow Nettie to marry Mr. (Danny Glover), she runs away from home and eventually spends time with Mr. and Celie, who was set up with him. Because Nettie rejects him, Mr. eventually boots her from the house, and she joins up with some missionaries to Africa who coincidentally adopted Celie’s two children.
Celie remains behind and suffers a rough existence. Mr. abuses her and also cheats on her with Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), a blues singer who comes to stay with them when she takes ill. After some tough periods, Shug and Celie eventually fall in love with each other, although the movie doesn’t do much to explore that relationship.
Also in the mix we find Celie’s stepson Harpo (Willard Pugh) who marries Sofia (Oprah Winfrey). The latter’s a tough broad who doesn’t take any guff from anyone until she refuses to defer strongly enough to the town’s white mayor (Phillip Strong) and his patronizing wife Miss Millie (Dana Ivey). An imprisonment - with multiple beatings - ensues, and this seems to turn Sofia into a meek shadow of herself.
In the meantime, Celie continues to have an occasional relationship with Shug as she deals with some self-exploration and growth. She also has reason to believe that she may someday meet up with her sister and children again. Will she? I won’t say - I don’t want to ruin the whole story!
Purple tackles a number of important and rough issues. It looks at incest, child and spouse abuse, and racism. Critics feared that Spielberg would be unable to free himself from his generally sentimental and sugary attitudes, and they had good reason to worry. I’ve always been a big Spielberg backer, and I was especially fond of his work during the first half of the Eighties. As such, I really wanted for him to succeed with his expansion into serious drama, but he couldn’t pull off the necessary grittiness. In Spielberg’s hands, Purple became an innocuous and simple tale with very little punch.
The film version of Purple seems intended to tell us a few basic points. For one, sisters need each other! They have mystical bonds that transcend time and distance, and their connections will overcome even the strongest obstacles.
In addition, we learn that women are good and men are bad. Actually, I need to clarify that point. Black women are good, white women are bad, as demonstrated by Miss Millie. Men seem to be evil no matter what skin color they boast.
This may sound like an oversimplification of the plot, but it’s really not. Spielberg makes the African-American female characters relentlessly positive; even when they appear slightly negative - such as our early impressions of Shug and Sofia - they inevitably end up as positive models for us.
As for the men, they are portrayed as abusive or buffoonish or both. Even a relatively innocuous character like Harpo doesn’t escape the anti-male wrath, as he ultimately ends up as a somewhat bad guy. The lack of balance borders on becoming offensive, and the treatment of whites comes across just as harshly. Those women are stupid and vindictive, while the men seem harsh and nasty. Being a white male himself, I doubt Spielberg felt he would generalize these attitudes, but because we see no one positive who isn’t a black female, such an overall tones is exactly what comes across during Purple.
It doesn’t help that Spielberg shows little stomach for the rough stuff. He casts Purple in a lovely golden glow that undermines most of the grittier elements. At times, the story appears moderately coarse, but these tones quickly dissipate. In their place we’re left with sugary and sweet depictions that fail to deliver a significant punch or impact. Spielberg even manages to wrap up the incest bits into a neat and tidy package they make the entire message much less powerful.
On the positive side, Purple does benefit from some fine acting. Goldberg became a star after her lead performance as Celie, and the role demonstrated that the comedienne could ably handle dramatic work. Despite the almost unilaterally nasty tone applied to Mr., Glover helped make the part much more rich and compelling than it should have been, and he offered a terrific presence.
Probably the biggest surprise came from the person who eventually would become the most famous and successful, though not as an actress. Prior to Purple, Oprah Winfrey was known only as a local TV host; I could recall her from a late-Seventies stint on a Baltimore station. As the tough-talking and aggressive Sofia, she seemed quite convincing, and she tended to steal the scenes in which she appeared. Oprah also became believably tame and subdued when appropriate, and her fine performance helped kickstart the bigger things that would eventually come her way.
Unfortunately, Spielberg undermines the solid work of the actors with his heavy-handed attitudes and easily sentimentality. The character development of roles like Shug and Sofia comes across as relentlessly simplistic and magical. When Celie emerges from her cocoon, it feels ridiculously abrupt and easy, and I didn’t buy it. Ultimately, The Color Purple fails because it seems more like a fairy tale than a believable and realistic drama.
The Color Purple appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. When Purple hit shelves in March 1997, dual-layered DVDs didn’t exist; Terminator 2 would come first seven months later. Due to the length of Purple, this meant that the movie needed to be spread to both sides of the disc, something referred to as a “flipper”. Many despise flippers, and I can’t really blame them, as the interruption in the film can be an annoyance. However, that’s the way it is for Purple, and it’ll remain that way until/unless Warner Bros. sees fit to eventually reissue the DVD.
Hopefully that’ll happen at some point, for Purple showed other concerns above and beyond its flipper status. Enough of the picture looked strong to merit a “B”, but this was an inconsistent image that offered its share of flaws. Sharpness looked quite good for the most part, as the majority of the film appeared to be crisp and accurate. Virtually no examples of soft or fuzzy scenes appeared, but other problems cropped up along the way. Moiré effects showed up on a few occasions, and some definite examples of edge enhancement also marred the proceedings. These weren’t a constant intrusion, but the haloes caused by the “enhancement” distracted me on numerous occasions. Most of the film lacked this edginess, but quite a few scenes suffered from it.
Print flaws seemed to be reasonably minor, though they also harmed parts of the movie. Grit and speckles appeared periodically throughout the film, and I also saw general examples of marks and debris. In many ways, the movie exhibited an oddly “digital” look that made sense due to the vintage of the DVD; as an early release, compression techniques weren’t as strong as they are currently. Still, the defects remained acceptably modest through most of the film.
On the positive side, colors looked consistently warm and vibrant. Spielberg gave the proceedings a rather lovely tone - sometimes inappropriately so - and these hues seemed to be nicely vivid and lush. Sensibly, purples were best of the bunch; they came across as quite gorgeous. Black levels also seemed to be deep and rich, and shadow detail was clean and appropriately opaque with no signs of excessive thickness. Ultimately, the picture of The Color Purple could use an update, but it seemed watchable for the most part.
Somewhat stronger was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Color Purple. I didn’t expect a slam-bang soundfield from this kind of drama, but the mix of the film complemented the action well. The track featured a fairly strong forward emphasis, and the front channels added a very nice layer of ambience and involvement. Music displayed fine stereo separation, and quite a variety of effects also cropped up in the front side areas. These sounds could be a little “speaker specific” at times, and they didn’t always blend together terrifically well, but I still found them to offer a clean and engaging atmosphere.
Surround usage seemed to be less positive, but it appeared good for a film of this era and scope. For the most part, the rears provided little more than general reinforcement of the music and effects heard in the front spectrum. During a few scenes, they came to life more forcefully, such as in a thunderstorm, but as a whole, they functioned as environmental elements. Overall, the mix complemented the film to a nice degree.
Audio quality also seemed to be good for its age, though a few concerns existed. Dialogue showed occasional signs of edginess, but most of the speech sounded rather warm and natural, with no problems related to intelligibility. Music appeared bright and vivid; I thought the soundtrack could have provided greater depth, but the clarity seemed fine for the most part. Effects were also a little thin, but they came across as reasonably accurate and distinct, and I heard no signs of distortion or other issues. In the end, the audio of The Color Purple worked well despite some minor concerns.
Unfortunately, the DVD offers very few extras. We find two theatrical trailers plus Cast Biographies for actors Danny Glover, Adolph Caesar, Margaret Avery, Rae Dawn Chong, Whoopi Goldberg, and that noted thespian, Steven Spielberg. These were brief but decent entries. In addition to an Awards listing, we get some rather good text Production Notes. Still, this was a pretty bland package that added little of consequence.
The Color Purple enjoys a positive reputation, but I can’t imagine why, as the movie suffers from a vast number of flaws, almost all of which result from the work of its director. Steven Spielberg desperately tried to escape his reputation as an action-fantasy auteur, but the sweet and sugary vision of black sisterhood seems less plausible than anything seen during E.T. or Close Encounters.
The DVD offers a frequently strong picture that loses points due to some edge enhancement and a few other concerns, while the audio appears good but lacks the scope to enter “A” territory. The disc features only some very basic supplements. Despite some excellent acting, The Color Purple is a silly and unconvincing fairy tale the left me unsatisfied, and the DVD has enough problems to mean that fans of the flick should probably hope for a reissue of the film before they bother with it.