Danny Glover, Margaret Avery and Whoopi Goldberg.
The Color Purple is a classic motion picture and (with the possible exception of The Wiz) is the most famous Hollywood movie to feature a mostly African American cast. Director Steven Spielberg proves yet again that he is the heir apparent to Frank Capra with the old-fashioned style he employs, most notably in the music-swelling, heart-tugging, spiritually-uplifting, happy ending. This is an epic family drama like they don’t make anymore. It was already out of date in 1985 with its sweeping storyline, dramatically aging characters and 2½ hour running time.
Taken from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is the story of three women whose lives intertwine, all struggling against oppression in the American South from 1907 to the late 1930’s. Black men, white people in general, poverty and illiteracy are the enemies in this sometimes heavy-handed and often schmaltzy movie.
At the 1985 Academy Awards Color Purple went home without a single statuette, despite its 11 nominations, including Best Picture. In the entire history of the Academy Awards only one other movie has garnered this many nominations without a single victory, 1977’s The Turning Point. Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director and Danny Glover failed to receive a nod for his acting. Future icons Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (both making their feature film debuts) were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Margaret Avery was also nominated in the supporting actress category.
Despite the somewhat grim circumstances described herein, The Color Purple is a nostalgic and romanticized version of the time and place depicted. There is a halcyon glow to the countryside and you can practically hear the flies droning by and smell the sweet honeysuckle on the gentle breeze. No matter the time of year there always seems to be full grown corn stalks in the fields and a golden and russet sunset in the background.
Celie is the central character. She is sexually abused by her father at a young age. She has two children by him and they are taken away from her. Her father then “sells” her in marriage to an abusive and domineering man. Celie’s sister Nettie comes for a visit. There is an unbreakable bond between these sisters. When Nettie refuses Mister’s sexual advances he sends her away in the movie’s most powerful and truly heartbreaking scene.
Next we are introduced to Sofia the overweight but proud soon-to-be wife of Mister’s son Harpo. She is strong minded and a physically imposing woman. She serves time in jail when she refuses to become a white woman’s maid and then hits a white man after he slaps her for “sassing” the white woman. The scene where Sofia goes home for Christmas is another heartbreaker in a movie designed to rake the audience’s emotions over the coals before finally setting them free on gossamer wings.
The third woman is Shug Avery. A minister’s daughter gone bad. She is wild, loose and likes to party. She is also a glamorous entertainer. Miss Celie has never laid eyes on anyone like her before and immediately falls under her spell. Shug has an on again/off again affair with Albert (Mister) over many years. She is instrumental in Celie’s asserting herself and finally breaking free from Mister’s rule. She also teaches Celie - who has only known impersonal and mechanical sex with Mister - what it is like to make love to another person.
Celie, Sofia and Shug all go on a journey of discovery and eventual redemption/triumph. The performances by all three women are quite remarkable. Danny Glover deserves a mention for playing the thankless role of Mister. He embodies many of the worst qualities that a man can have, especially in his views towards and treatment of women. Glover brings humor and a likable personality to the part, enough so that his eventual redemption seems plausible. Not to excuse his numerous faults and abominable behavior towards Celie, but Mister was very much a product of his environment and upbringing.
The Color Purple has many quotable lines that fans of the movie love to recite… “You told Harpo to beat me.” “You sho’ is ugly!” "You just a big ol heffa." "See Daddy, sinners have souls too." “I don’t know HER either.” "I curse you. Until you do right by me everything you think about is gonna crumble!" …and many others.
For all the trials and tribulations of these characters the ending is straight out of the Frank Capra School of Filmmaking. Your heart will swell and a tear or two will cloud your eyes. These characters and their heartaches are very real but Spielberg’s direction reeks of cheap sentiment. The result is a critically mixed bag of a movie that is eminently and endlessly watchable. Color this shade of Purple a classic!
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1985)