Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Willard E. Pugh, Akosua Busia
Menno Meyjes, based on the novel by Alice Walker.
It's about life. It's about love. It's about us.
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actress-Whoopi Goldberg; Best Supporting Actress-Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Makeup; Best Score; Best Song-"Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)".
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
English, French, Spanish
Runtime: 153 min.
Release Date: 2/18/2003
• Award Notes
• Cast and Crew
• “Conversations with the Ancestors: From Book to Screen” Documentary
• “A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting” Documentary
• “The Color Purple: The Musical” Documentary
• “Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple” Documentary
• Behind the Scenes Gallery
• Cast Gallery
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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The Color Purple: Special Edition (1985)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 7, 2003)
With The Color Purple, we saw a filmmaker try desperately to break out of preconceived boundaries. Over the decade prior to that flick’s 1985 release, 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. During that period, Spielberg’s only dud came from 1979’s 1941.
Even with 1941, it was a terrific run, but apparently Spielberg felt frustrated with his niche. 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 sisters, 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 Mister (Danny Glover), she runs away from home and eventually spends time with Mister and Celie, who does wed him. Because Nettie rejects him sexually, Mister eventually boots her from the house, and she joins some missionaries to Africa who coincidentally adopted Celie’s two children.
Celie remains behind and suffers a rough existence. Mister 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 also deals with some self-exploration and growth. She believes 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, but 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, buffoonish or both. Even a relatively innocuous character like Harpo doesn’t escape the anti-male wrath; he eventually shows up as something of a bad guy too. The lack of balance borders on offensive, and the treatment of whites comes across just as harshly. The Caucasian women are stupid and vindictive, while those 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 tone is exactly what comes across during Purple.
It doesn’t help that Spielberg shows little stomach for the rough stuff. Visually, 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. Quincy Jones’ sappy and sugary score doesn’t help matters, as it renders even the nastiest scenes gentle and innocuous.
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 Mister, 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 member of the cast, though not as an actress. Prior to Purple, Oprah Winfrey was known only as a local TV host; back then I knew 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 DVD Grades: Picture A- / Audio B / Bonus B+
The Color Purple appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The original DVD of Purple appeared as one of the initial batch of releases in March 1997, and it suffered from some concerns that seemed typical back in the olden days. Not only was it a “flipper” – meaning that the movie spread to both sides of the single-layered DVD – but also it demonstrated edge enhancement and other flaws. When I watched it in late 2001, I thought the image looked good enough to still warrant a “B-”, but the mix of concerns kept it from greatness.
Fans desired a remastered version for years – will they feel happy with this new edition of Purple? Yup, I think so. Not only did it finally place the whole movie on one side of a disc, but also it presented a significantly stronger image. 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. Unlike the first DVD, no issues related to jagged edges or moiré effects appeared, but I still noticed some light edge enhancement on occasion. Those issues seemed minor, however, and they didn’t create many concerns. Happily, the edge enhancements appeared minimized from the older release.
Whereas the first DVD suffered from periodic print flaws, the remaster looked much cleaner. A smidgen of grain popped up on a few occasions, but otherwise the movie was virtually spotless. It showed no signs of the marks and debris that showed up during the old release. In addition, the new one lacked the “digital” look and artifacts that appeared on the prior disc.
As with the first DVD, 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. Red dresses also presented lively and rich hues. Black levels seemed to be deep and dense, and shadow detail was clean and appropriately opaque with no signs of excessive thickness. For those who held off on the purchase of the old DVD, the new Color Purple was definitely worth the wait – it looked gorgeous.
While the image improved upon that of the original disc, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Color Purple seemed identical on both DVDs. 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.
Whereas the old Color Purple DVD included almost no extras, the special edition packs a nice mix of them. Since Spielberg doesn’t like to do audio commentaries, we find none here. This means only a few small supplements show up on DVD One. Cast and Crew lists some participants, but it includes no further information about any of them; no biographies or filmographies appear. Awards offers two screens that mention the smattering of prizes taken home by Purple. Lastly, DVD One present two teaser trailers and one theatrical trailer. All are anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Surround 2.0 audio.
DVD Two includes the majority of the extras, most of which take the form of medium-length documentaries. We get four of these, and we start with Conversations with the Ancestors: From Book to Screen. It lasts 26 minutes and 38 seconds and focuses on writer Alice Walker for the most part. It combines movie clips, archival stills and new interviews with Walker, director Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, producer/music producer Quincy Jones, and producer/second unit director Frank Marshall.
The first portion of “Conversations” focuses on the novel. Walker discusses her familial inspirations as well as other aspects of the book, and she gets into reactions it provoked, both good and bad. From there, Spielberg discusses his involvement and how the story got to the screen. We learn of Walker’s power of approval over the director, her initial attempt to adapt the story into a script, changes made between the two and other elements. We even get a little material about an unused “forgiveness scene”. Some may find “Conversations” to seem a little heavy on “talking heads”, but it conveys a lot of information. It gets across all these notes in a concise manner and seems like a useful discussion of the topics.
After this comes A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple. The 28-minute and 39-second program uses the same format as the prior – and subsequent – pieces. Here we hear from Spielberg, Walker, Jones, Kennedy, casting director Reuben Cannon, and actors Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Danny Glover, Akosua Busia, and Rae Dawn Chong. “Acting” stays true to its title, as it concentrates wholly on that side of the production. We find out how Goldberg, Winfrey, Avery and Glover earned their parts, and we get lots of good information about the challenges they faced on the set. This includes various anecdotes as well as insight into the characters. Compelling and lively, “Acting” covers its subject well.
Next we find Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple, a 23-minute and 35-second program that covers more of the technical aspects of the movie. We get remarks from Kennedy, Spielberg, Marshall, production designer J. Michael Riva, costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers, and director of photography Allen Daviau. Not surprisingly, they mostly delve into sets, locations, clothes and cinematography. We learn about challenges related to the period costumes, Spielberg’s initial idea to film Purple in black and white, lighting the dark-skinned actors, the importance of Mister’s mailbox, Spielberg’s reactions to the public attitude toward the movie, and more. The driest of the three documentaries to date, “Classic” seems a little flat and slow at times, but it offers enough interesting details to make it worth a look.
For the final documentary we get The Color Purple: The “Musical”. No, this doesn’t discuss a Broadway adaptation of the story; instead, it discusses some of the movie’s music. We listen to material from Spielberg, Jones, Avery, Walker, and Kennedy in this seven-minute and 32-second program. At times, we find some nice details about the songs and their connection to the material. Unfortunately, too much of the program simply relates praise for Jones and his work, and “Musical” ends up as the least useful of the four documentaries.
The DVD ends with two stillframe collections. In the Behind the Scene Gallery we locate 26 images from the set, while the Cast Gallery includes 69 shots. None of these seem especially fascinating, but the offer some decent images.
The Color Purple enjoys a positive reputation, but I can’t imagine why, as the movie suffers from a vast number of flaws, most 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. As for the DVD, it provides a definite improvement over the old 1997 release. The audio seems the same, but the new disc fixes many problems related to the picture and adds a significantly more substantial roster of extras.
As with all reissues, I need to deal with multiple recommendations. Clearly I can’t advise anyone who never saw the movie to purchase it outright. If it still sounds appealing, give it a rental, but I think the film’s far too flawed for anyone to give it a blind buy. If you’re already a fan, though, I can recommend the new DVD without hesitation. If you don’t have the old disc, get this one. Even if you do own the original, this reissue deserves your attention, as it substantially improves the prior release. Warner Bros. did a great job with this new version of The Color Purple and it should satisfy fans of the flick.
To rate this film please visit the original review of THE COLOR PURPLE