Celie and her younger sister Nettie are being raised by an abusive father in southern USA, near the start of the 20th Century. They have just lost their mother, and so far their father has taken the two children he raped into Celie and killed them in the woods. Now, though, their father’s eye has begun to wander onto the blossoming Nettie, so Celie is married off to a widowed man who needs a wife to take care of his house and his three unruly children. This new man turns out to be just as bad as Celie’s father, and it doesn’t help when he spends all his time pining for a lost love, in the form of Shug Avery.
I don’t hate many books. That is to say, I haven’t read many books I didn’t think I would like, and if by about a third of the way through I’m struggling to remain attentive with the story, and don’t care how it turns out, I tend to stop reading it and pick up something else instead. The one time in my life that this was not a possibility was during my education. I always enjoyed English as a child (I still speak it to this day), and even took it on through college as well (high school to any non-UK residents reading this). Unfortunately, in my second year of college the chosen text for us to read and analyse was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the only book I can safely say I have both finished and despised. I strongly believe this book would not even be remembered today were it not written about the plight of a poor, suffering black child, and it weren’t written in “Black American Vernacular” (as my college teachers insisted upon calling it) – that is to say, it was written as a series of letter and diary entries by a character only a couple of steps away from illiteracy, so approximately a fifth of the words are spelled incorrectly and any sense of grammar is non existent. This would have been almost tolerable, had it been at least consistent, and words like “ask” are spelled incorrectly, but “scissors” is just fine. Infuriating. Also, the novel features a heavy emphasis on religion – not exactly my favourite subject when being rammed down my throat – and for large chunks is not exactly a heartwarming read, involving such activities as beating, enforced servitude and, of course, repeated incestual rape. Therefore, I was not looking forward to watching the film.As it turns out some of these fears were not applicable to the adaptation, however they were soon replaced with others. You see, whilst Steven Spielberg is one of my favourite directors of all time, this is not a film he was supposed to make at this point in his career. It feels very much like a dry run for Schindler’s List, the dramatic, super-serious story that would re-model Spielberg as not just a blockbuster popcorn-flick maker, but a reputable master of adult cinema, however here he hadn’t quite dropped the urge to please his audience with elements of humour and fun, that really have no place within a story this morose. I’m not saying the whole thing should be nothing but doom and gloom, as that would be wrist-slittingly intolerable, but turning the character of Harpo – the eldest son of Celie’s new husband – into a prat-falling clown who spends half his time falling from or through the roof of a building just doesn’t seem right. This is a very serious story, and one that doesn’t seem to have been handled with the correct degree of respect.That being said, when it works, it works well. To begin with, the acting is impeccable throughout. Whoopi Goldberg – a long way from being a performer I like – does wonders here as the grown up Celie, despite having very little dialogue. She was a relative unknown at the time, having appeared in only one other film before this, so her casting was a risky decision that paid off greatly. Similarly, Oprah Winfrey is surprisingly good as Sofia, the headstrong wife of Harpo, who is not quite as willing to put up with her husband’s cruelty as Celie is. Winfrey hasn’t gone on to do much other acting (I’ve yet to see The Butler) so there’s a chance that she excelled here because the character is at times largely like her own (I’m assuming, this is literally the only thing I’ve ever seen her in, including her own show). Danny Glover also surprisingly excels with an arguably more difficult role as Celie’s new husband, mostly known simply as Mister. He has to appear at times as a bullish task-master, charming potential husband and bumbling fool depending on the situation, and he portrays them all well, though occasionally the links between these characteristics aren’t present, making him come off as a little schizophrenic.This lack of connection is a flaw throughout the film, and it could be something I’ve picked up on because I’m familiar with the book, and might not be so jarring or distracting to others. Like a lot of literary adaptations, there’s a certain pressure to not exclude the favourite elements of the pre-existing fan base, so the high notes tend to be hit, with the somewhat lesser connective tissue being filled in via exposition or not at all, which is the case here. It’s very episodic, often skipping large swathes of time because they are deemed unnecessary to the viewer, when in fact they contain integral information which could improve the relationship of empathy we have with the characters. The moments we see are the more emotional beats, but only because of the tissue that connects them together. I find myself in a strange position where I’m suggesting that a film I wasn’t overly keen on and didn’t want to watch in the first place, and which is already a little over two and a half hours in length, should have been either longer or split into a television mini-series. I think one of the storylines most effected by truncating the book is the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), the woman Mister idolises, and whom Celie grows to as well. In the book it was explained and developed more fully, but here Celie jumps straight to adoration, without much of a build-up behind why she feels this way towards a woman she has never met. Also, when we first meet Mister’s father, very late into the film, he is spoken to as though he has been a supporting character throughout, so I assume there were deleted scenes featuring him in earlier moments of the plot, but which had to be removed for the sake of brevity.I feel I’m being very negative, and I want to assure you that I did not spend this entire film just looking for ways in which to tear it apart. As I said, the acting is superb, especially when you consider that many of these characters are displayed over large portions of their lives, with the film taking places from 1909 to the 1930s, but the performances would have been far less convincing were it not for the tremendous make-up work done on all the actors to increase or decrease their various ages when necessary. For the most part the cinematography is beautiful too. However, at one point the camera attempts to show that, during a brief period when Nettie moves in with Celie and Mister, and the latter casts his eye over his new houseguest with some less than savoury intentions upon his mind, he no longer thinks of Celie, now only seeing Nettie. This is done by shooting from just behind his head – to mimic his viewpoint – with the camera slowly panning so that the back of his head blocks out Celie, leaving only Nettie in the frame. It works well once, but the technique is used multiple times, and becomes too deliberate and obvious after several uses.Like I said, it’s not a bad film, it just wasn’t right for Spielberg at the time. If you can say anything about the director, it’s that he learns from his previous films. Had he not perfected the art of less-is-more on Jaws (albeit out of necessity rather than choice), many elements of Jurassic Park would not work as well (the opening raptor attack being a prime example). So it is that I believe this was an integral step towards creating the far superior Schindler’s List, Spielberg learned to tone down the comedy – one scene has Mister telling his son that he should give his wife a good solid beating, to bring her down a peg or two, and it’s played so lightly that I couldn’t quite believe it – and let the seriousness of the story play through. When it works; it works, and there’s more than one brutally emotional scene here, the most compelling – and infuriating – being when Sofia, after an absence away from her family for an extended period of time, is finally reunited. It’s not so much the reunion that hits hard, but how it plays out. That being said, this is still a film I can’t recommend. It has too many flaws, too few merits, and the 1001 Movies book itself describes it as a project upon which Spielberg “bit off more than he could chew…too often falls back on sentimentality.” When the book that claims this is one of the films that must be watched before you die is almost apologising for its inclusion, well that I think speaks for itself.
Choose Life 6/10
My three-word review of this film is “Men are bad.” The only way to not be rock stupid or an abuser as a man in this film is to be completely subservient to the women in the film.
Needless to say, I thought it was kind of a load.
I see where you’re coming from there. However, you could argue that the film is shot from Celie’s perspective, so she only sees her father and Mister as abusive, and because that’s all she knows men to be, when Harpo doesn’t behave like that it must be because he’s a bit of a nincompoop. Not entirely sure why I’m attempting to defend a film I don’t really care for.
Very well thought out review. I’ve long considered it one of my all time faves, but I haven’t watched it in quite a few years. It certainly was well before I became a more discerning viewer. It’s time for a rewatch. I’m curious to see how I react to it these days.
Thanks Wendell. If you’ve got a spare 2 1/2 hours to give over to the film, willingly, then by all means go ahead. I don’t think I ever will again.