The Color Purple (1985)

This review contains Spoilers

By the mid 1980’s Steven Spielberg had proven himself one of the most successful men in Hollywood, with several colossal hits under his belt and the widespread adoration of the public. But many critics remained doubtful of his ability to direct a ‘straight’ drama; The Color Purple was Spielberg’s risky attempt to change this opinion. While not completely successful it does showcase Spielberg’s skills as a filmmaker, and provides a promising glimpse of the man who would go on to direct Schlindler’s List.

At first glance this is unusual subject matter for Spielberg, far removed from any of his previous films. Adapted from Author Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winner bestseller, it traces the lives of a poor Black community in the rural Southern US over a period of several decades, focussing in Particular on the protagonist Celie Harris a timid teenager forced into an Unhappy Marriage with local Widower Albert Johnson (Danny Glover) known to her as ‘Mr’.

The film opens with an overlong, grim, prologue of sorts. Sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, (She has already fathered him two kids by the age of fourteen) unable to read or write, and suffering from extremely low self-esteem, Celie is torn from her sister and left alone with a man she could never love, but is too scared of to leave. Her fears and internal struggles frame the story which spans several decades, and covers issues as diverse as racism, feminism and lesbianism.

Her backstory certainly has all the ingredients of a classic tearjerker-a flawed protagonist dealing with adversity, supporting characters with few redeeming features, and a memorable historical setting. Unfortunately it isn’t told with quite the conviction such a backstory merited.

The opening is long and slow, filled with clichéd expository dialogue, and needlessly stretched out over half an hour- many of the scenes have little relevance to the narrative, whilst an annoying voiceover and predictable characterisation scenes make their presence felt far too frequently. But it is the messy opening birth sequence that feels that causes the biggest issues; it simply doesn’t work, unconvincingly staged, and feeling rather melodramatic, it is supposed to be the reason for the audience to connect with Celie, but it only ends up being uncomfortable.

Celie is played by Desreta Jackson in these opening scenes; she gives a convincing performance as the younger incarnation, channelling Whoopi Goldberg’s mannerisms but also displaying her own impressions of the character, hampered only by largely forgettable dialogue, and rather more limited screen time, than her co-star.

The two leads are supported by a large group of additional characters, whilst some such as Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), Celie’s eventual daughter in law, are given meaningful roles in the script; many others are left with limited screentime and thankless roles in the narrative, Laurence Fishburne (as Swain) despite his billing, barely appears, other than to spout a few lines of meaningless gap filler dialogue.

Whilst there are no aliens or killer sharks Spielberg doesn’t make a total break from his earlier work, employing many of his signature techniques to varying effect. He gets strong performances out of the cast, particularly Whoopi Goldberg as the older Celie, she rarely speaks or raises her temper, but she remains completely convincing as a character, and Goldberg is genuinely impressive in this, her feature debut. Glover too, gives a strong performance, (even if the character remains largely two dimensional for most of the film) and shares a convincing, for want of a better word, chemistry with Goldberg.

Spielberg largely refrains from the dramatic camerawork that has marked many of his films (though occasional instances work their way in), relying on the actors, and the story to sell the film, whilst this more intimate approach is suitable for the film, in his hands it doesn’t completely work. Whatever his claims to the contrary Spielberg has always been a filmmaker primarily looking to entertain people, and whilst his technical eye is still evident, The Color Purple is visually very repetitive with no real standout moments. The story never has quite the pull it should do either, too often falling back on Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, who reportedly toned down the novels content for the film. Both decisions show themselves, the film ends up feeling surprisingly flat for a director of his calibre.  

Running only 148 minutes in length, the film still feels overlong, the relatively simple storyline is stretched out far too long, with numerous dramatic gaps and repetitive scenes. The way Celie feels about her husband is clear in the first half and hour, but the film insists on ramming evidence down the audiences throats every few seconds. Despite the subject matter the script still works in a few instances of humour, which whilst not always working, do make a pleasant break from the otherwise sombre tone of the film.

Even though The Color Purple never quite convinces as a story, the film has a good eye for time and place. The production design and locations are fully believable as the early 20th century southwest, and the excellent musical score (by Quincy Jones) works well with the film, balancing emotion and drama rather more successfully than Spielberg.

The Color Purple is overlong and uneven, and takes far too long to reach its predictable ending. Its director is technically competent, but brings too much excess baggage to an already weighty story. On the other hand there are positives. Whilst the film lacks the visual impact or confidence of Spielberg’s later works, it is competently directed with convincing camerawork and impressive performances-the cast is uniformly excellent. The film looks and feels realistic, and the story is surprisingly accessible for such a niche setting. But ultimately only parts of the film work.

At sveral pints in the film Mr engages in DIY. Strangely, viewing the film The Color Purple is like doing DIY, you both loath and enjoy the experience-some people get more out of the process than others, it’s painful and time consuming, but a few moments stand in your memory. But then again, how many DIY products get nominated for Best Picture?


Paul Ashwell


About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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