When examining the cannon of Steven Spielberg’s work, The Color Purple is a little jarring if you are inclined to follow his filmography from beginning to end. In later years he would call it “my first grown-up movie” and indeed it is a massive departure from what had come before. This was a man known for fluffy entertainments about sharks, aliens and battering archeologists. Therefore it is reasonable that most people approached The Color Purple with a sense of trepidation.
I admit that I did so as well. When I saw the movie in the late 80s I enjoyed it tremendously but I admit that it didn’t have the glowing impact that it did on everyone else. Seeing it again after 30 years, I’m inclined to think that the critical praise was completely justified. This is a wonderful movie, a movie about a culture of people that don’t get the chance to tell their story in the movies very often – black women in the early days of 20th century America. In most cases, this time period might either deal with white people or if it focuses on African-Americans, the central roles are given to the men. Black women in period films usually take supporting roles or roles of no real significance.
In The Color Purple , black women are the central focus. The men are there but they are usually abusive buffoons who have no need or respect for their humanity. The few white characters are the ones who are forced to play roles of little to no significance. But that’s okay because the story is told from a specific point of view, of three black women whose fury at being treated as property sets this multifaceted story in motion.
At the center, of course is Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut as Celie, a painfully shy young woman who has been abused and mistreated from the moment she came into the world. Forced to marry Mister (Danny Glover) a man who treats her like garbage; who makes her play servant to his needs and punching bag to his tantrums, the story is a journey of how grows out of that dark place through the strength of three women.
First is Shug (Margaret Avery) a jook joint singer whom Mister has been in love with for years. She has family problems of her own but her looks have always let her get ahead. She opens up Celie to believe that she is not all of the terrible things that Mister heaps upon her.
The second is Sophie (Oprah Winfrey, also in her film debut) a head-strong black woman with a fiery personality living at a moment when this could get blacks could be jailed or killed. Her story is just as sad and heartbreaking as Celie’s.
The last is Celie’s sister Nettie, whom she is separated from because of Mister and never allowed to communicate with. Under the influence of these women, Celie grows to love herself. The story takes place from 1909 up through 1943 and we see the flower of a hidden personality, one that has been forced to hide in shame and darkness from the very start. The movie doesn’t go easy on the abuse, so that when she does finally flower at the end it is a booming revelation.
Spielberg’s great trademarks are all here. His emotional sweeps could have over-crowded the story, but they feel justified. The emotional heights fill in the gaps of outward expression that Celie is often forced to hide. There is much of the same emotional outpouring as in E.T. and for almost the same purpose. Despite all the abuse and violence that the women are forced to endure, this is one of the most emotionally satisfying movies I’ve ever seen. This is a movie that shows him growing into a serious filmmaker, one that can use his gifts to tells a grounded story just as well as he could tell fantasy.
Yet, the film industry at the time wasn’t ready to reward Spielberg’s growth. Perhaps jealous of his success, the movie was punished at that year’s Academy Awards. It received ten nominations and won nothing. Plus, in the biggest “screw you” of his career, Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Best Director. For Spielberg’s career, it would mark a high point for a very unfortunate reason. This was the last great film that he would direct for the rest of the decade. Starting with his next film, Spielberg would spend the next six years mired in mediocre work that didn’t match up to his earlier greatness.