Anyone who believed Steven Spielberg was incapable of anything but adventure sagas for the teenage consumer should have been surprised by The Color Purple.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was a noble, compelling, powerfully acted, magnificently photographed, richly textured film of heartrending impact that spans four decades in the lives of a black family in the South and traces the heroic growth of one woman from the chains of early-twentieth-century slavery to fully realised independence.
It is arguably still Spielberg’s finest film.
It also marked the film debut of Whoopi Goldberg, former Broadway comedienne and short-sketch artist, who demonstrated the skill with which she can tackle the demands of a complex character with sustaining force.
As the centrepiece of this epic story, the character of Celie is one of the screen’s most unforgettable heroines.
She first appears at the age of fourteen, in 1909 an unloved child who has given birth to two babies by her own father, both torn from her arms and given away to strangers. When her mother dies, her father marries a girl Celie’s age.
“Spoiled, ugly, but no stranger to hard work,” Celie is married off to a cruel widower called “Mister” (Danny Glover).
Abused as a surrogate mother for his own kids, a workhorse, and a sexual object, Celie is forced through ignorance and bigotry to surrender her own youth and accept adult responsibilities before she’s old enough to know anything about life, a child-woman so imprisoned by her own servitude that a rural mailbox on a road near the edge of a dusty cornfield becomes her only link to the outside world. And even that is forbidden to her.
From her lonely heart, Celie talks to God, then to her sister Nettie, who has taught her to read and write. “I don’t know how to fight – I only know how to stay alive,” says Celie.
The Color Purple is the valiant story of how she survives, blossoms like the purple flowers that exude beauty even in the ugliest environment of her childhood, and finds her own inner strength and self-value.
Playing different ages as well as a thousand different moods and emotions, Whoopi Goldberg was magnificent.
From a dull-eyed pacifist who takes her beatings the way most people take their morning coffee, to a proud cane rod of a woman, brittle with age but wise with inner spirit, she communicates her knowledge of how injustice burns. She is three-dimensional, restrained, dignified, and finally justifiably proud of the way her life turns out. It was a mesmerizing performance.
Also buzzing around her like dazed butterflies were supporting players of great depth and magnitude. By 1916, Mister brings home a fancy woman named Shug Avery (beautifully acted by the gorgeous actress/blues singer Margaret Avery, pictured below), who becomes a source of inspiration and eventual liberation to the other black women around her.
By 1922, Celie’s stepson Harpo (Willard Pugh) opens a back roads juke joint and introduces to the family a combustible wife named Sofia, played with robust force by Oprah Winfrey, the popular Chicago talk-show hostess, who made a stunning acting debut.
Sofia (pictured below left) is a tough, rotund, zestful black lady who takes no scrapes from any man, black or white. As the story progresses, her own spirit and pride bring her to a sad downfall, and we see how little control black women had over their own lives in the changing South.
Rae Dawn Chong, as a younger-generation black girl sniffing the winds of change, played Harpo’s second wife.
Adolph Caesar was grand and plucky as Mister’s dandy, bantam-rooster father, always dispensing the wrong advice. Akosua Busia made a memorable contribution as Celie’s beloved, long-lost sister Nettie.
Seasons pass, relationships grow and change. Celie is always the camera, recording everything as it passes across the landscapes and reflects in the retinas of her eyes.
Black, dirt-poor, with no skills and no education, Celie ultimately learns through the restorative power of love to stand up and be counted. When she announces her declaration of independence, it’s a red-letter day in movies.
Images dance before the eyes: black children hopscotching through a field of buttercups, a man playing a honky-tonk piano on a river raft, a beautiful hussy belting the blues on Saturday night, followed by the music of a Sunday morning fire-and-brimstone gospel meeting.
The plantations and the ramshackle cabins, the general stores, and first automobiles, the rocking chairs silhouetted against the orange hot sunsets in the cotton fields – every image necessary to transport the audience to Georgia in the infancy of this century was artfully, rapturously recreated with beauty and awe.
Out of the pain and sadness, Spielberg and Goldberg awakened Celie and her audience to renewed hope, and The Color Purple became a life-affirming experience.
Rae Dawn Chong