The Color Purple has the distinction of being the most-nominated film not to win an Oscar. The 1985 adaptation of the Alice Walker novel earned an impressive 11 nominations, but failed to win a single Academy Award, tying the record held by mostly-forgotten 1977 ballet drama The Turning Point.
Watching The Color Purple for the first time, it was easy for me to see why it earned such critical acclaim. It tackled topics that would have filled most Academy voters’ bingo cards: rape, incest, pervasive abuse, more rape, forbidden sexuality, a hard-but-brief detour into racism, and female empowerment.
Yet, the film suffers from the same structural challenges that plague many other movies based on books, whether Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. Namely, there is simultaneously too much and too little: we get a story in the form of snapshots, jumping from era to era at an almost-breakneck pace, but without some of the detail that surely fleshed-out the novel (which, unsurprisingly, I haven’t read).
This is most noticeable in a few cases. One is the relationship between Celie and Shug. Even with a stolen kiss, there’s clearly more going on than is depicted in the film. Another is the rather sudden untangling of Celie’s familial and economic situation upon the death of her father near the end of the film (much of which is achieved via voiceover). A third is the glossing-over of the events in Africa, recounted in summary fashion via Nettie’s letters.
There’s also the issue of the wild swings in character, which can make sense over the course of a sprawling novel, but can be jarring in a movie, even one that is well over two hours long.
To wit, Celie’s transformation is likely appropriately gradual in the book, but, in the film, she’s still a very shy, very meek, likely emotionally-stunted individual well into adulthood—until, that is, she discovers the letters from her sister that Albert hid (sidebar: the only big issue I had with the plot was that point: Albert would have destroyed the letters, not kept them, unopened).
The same holds true for Oprah Winfrey’s Sophie, who is a brash, confident character (to the point of being unsympathetic early on) who stands up to the local mayor’s racist wife and winds up being sentenced to eight years in jail—which apparently ages her at a much faster rate than every other character, incidentally. She emerges as a different person. Ok, fair enough. But, then, once Celie finally stands up to Abner, she reverts back to her prior state.
I think issues like these are partially due to the structural problem I’ve discussed above and elsewhere during my review of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, and partially due to the “Spielberg-ification” of the story. Indeed, his direction leads to rather melodramatic, even cartoonish performances in certain scenes, which must have seemed a bit silly to some viewers, even at the time.
It’s interesting to think about how modern audiences unfamiliar with this film might perceive it today. We’re obviously a long way from 1985—for better and, probably in more ways, for worse. I wonder if Spielberg would even be “allowed” to direct this movie today. At a minimum, the early 1900s rural Georgia vernacular dialogue would be the subject of much derision among the Very Important People crowd on Twitter.
Anyway, the most enduring element of the whole film for me is Whoopi Goldberg’s performance. She was deservedly lauded for her portrayal of Celie, which began a bit one-note, but became much richer, blossoming as her character did. What’s remarkable is that this was Goldberg’s first real film role, as she was more focused on a stand-up comedy career prior to this breakthrough role.
While I don’t think this film cracks the upper tier of the 50 Film Collection, it’s a worthwhile watch, albeit a story that is probably better-served in a novel. The triumph of the human spirit and redemption (even for Abner!) that breaks inter-generational cycles of abuse will always be successfully crowd-pleasing in Spielberg’s capable, if predictable hands.
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