This film follows the life of Celie, a young black girl growing up in the early 1900's. The first time we see Celie, she is 14 - and pregnant - by her father. We stay with her for the next 30 years of her tough life
Were The Color Purple to be released today Steven Spielberg might respond to all the flak by quoting the poet Ali G: "Is it because I is black?"
For The Color Purple is Spielberg's black film. The one that's inside so many white, liberal American filmmakers but rarely transpires in such brazen, unapologetic form. Wracked, we may assume, with the subliminal national guilt of slavery, many white directors have tackled black issues, not least, among Spielberg's immediate forbears, the Canadian Norman Jewison, who made In The Heat Of The Night (1967) and later A Soldier's Story (1984), and only relinquished Malcolm X to Spike Lee when he realised he wasn't black enough to tell the tale. Brave decision.
So what was Spielberg doing, after The Temple Of Doom, with his pale mitts on Alice Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple? Firstly, this was a symptom of the director's self-intellectualising phase, which may have been an entree to a mid-life
crisis — he was 38, and anticipating his first kid with Amy Irving — or simply a reaction to almost a decade of Academy snubs, sidelining him as some kind of Barnum figure. Having given literature a wide berth in childhood (he turned his school copy of The Scarlet Letter into a flick book), he was now making up for lost time — also acquiring the rights to Empire Of The Sun and Schindler's Ark.
Taking place between 1909 and 1946 in Georgia, The Color Purple (as in, "It pisses God off when you walk by the colour purple in a field and don't notice") is the story of Celie (debutante Whoopi Goldberg), a young black girl forced into a marriage of convenience with a cruel, unfaithful widower, "Mister" (Danny Glover). As if to accelerate the merry-go-round of misery that is her life, Celie is separated from her beloved sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) and must also endure the knowledge that her two children (sired by who else but her own father) were sold at birth to a local reverend.
Unlike so many other films dealing with blacks in the South, racism is barely touched upon (not a burning cross in sight). Whites are largely absent from the picture — save for the local mayor and his wife, pompous rather than evil. Spielberg simply treats the community as a microcosm for life, even an extended family. So we get good blacks and bad blacks — a refreshing realism supplied by the book — and in that respect The Color Purple isn't about race issues at all.
It is sentimental though, for both a mythic past (the painter Andrew Wyeth has a lot to answer for here), and the simplicity of rural life on the porch in a pair of dungarees. How very different from the home life of our own dear Steve. The "Spielbergisation" of Walker's book can be seen in the toning down of its explicit lesbian tryst between Celie and Mister's mistress Shug Avery (the fabulous Margaret Avery). Alice Walker herself curtailed other more potentially damaging decisions, such as the casting of Diana Ross in
the Shug role. "We had to make it clear," Walker said afterwards, "that authenticity means not having Diana Ross! The final cast list must seem like they have stepped straight from the pages of the book."
Well, true to Spielberg's enduring sixth sense, The Color Purple is perfectly and quietly cast. (It made Goldberg and Danny Glover stars, and launched Chicago talk show I host Oprah Winfrey to national acclaim.) That said, the film ultimately groans under the weight of its desire to do good. Spielberg was I all too conscious of his unsuitability for the job. He'd tried to turn it down when associate producer Quincy Jones had first approached I him, and later admitted, "I wanted to do this I book because I was scared I couldn't." As a result, he allowed too many cooks to advise him, and the broth was duly spoiled. Not only I did hands-on "Project Consultant" Walker hover over his right shoulder, but Jones also spent a lot of time on set and in the editing room, on the grounds that he needed to be close to the material for which he was composing the score. (An awful, sugary score, by the way — bring back John Williams.)
Spielberg even enrolled Gordon Parks, director of The Learning Tree (1969) and Shaft (1971), to guide him during filming, gathering images as a stills photographer, assisting him with the "vibe" and, in effect, playing his uncredited black Jiminy Cricket. I
None of this helped in the end. It's a beautifully shot, overlong piece of afternoon I schmaltz, which, biographer John Baxter notes, was "edited in the glow of new fatherhood." It enraged African-American pressure groups for showing black men as brutes and suggesting blacks lived in too much comfort, and pissed off lesbians who felt "their" story had been airbrushed out.
It made about $140 million and won a grand total of... no Oscars (from 13 nominations). Best Film that year? Out Of Africa. About white people.
Spielberg's dalliance with race is not entirely successful, but it's stilly an emotionally brave film with some fine performances.