Steven Spielberg’s production of “The Color Purple,” adapted from Alice Walker’s novel is an absolute triumph of the human spirit. It is evidence that physical and mental beatings cannot break a person’s determination to live her life to the fullest.
The film takes place over roughly forty years during the early part of the 20th century in the rural plains of Georgia. The community consists of African Americans who own property farm lands where men feel justified in requesting possession of young girls. Celie, along with her sister Nettie, are two of those girls. Both girls were molested by their father. Celie was forced to give up the two children she carried.
A landowner named Albert (Danny Glover) takes Celie to live on his property as a means for endless housework and upkeep, and to use as a disposal for his sexual gratification. Albert also violently forces Nettie off his land when she refuses his advances. The sisters are separated from that point on.
Celie in her teen years through adulthood is astonishingly played by Whoopi Goldberg, and this must rank as one of the greatest all time debut performances on film. Like most of Spielberg’s heroes, Goldberg looks perfect in the director’s signature close ups of light. Watch as Goldberg gives a radiant smile or a wise look from behind her glasses. Spielberg’s camera is owned by the protagonist.
Beyond that, is Goldberg’s performance. There are so many reactions to play with here. She is a victim to Albert’s cruelty. She only will address him as “Mister.” Yet, she’s also denied the right to any kind of personal value or confidence. Albert pines for a traveling lounge singer named Shug (Margaret Avery) who drunkenly calls Celie ugly when they first meet. That’s more crushing to Celie than Albert’s beatings. Perhaps because the observation comes from another woman of color and not a blatantly obvious cruel man. Later, Shug finds the undeniable warmth within Celie and in a tender moment together demonstrates the personal worth that Celie has, as well as how to feel treasured in a sexually intimate moment. It’s a major turning point for Celie who eventually builds up her own strength to fight back against Mister’s oppression, and declare her independence.
Contrary to Celie’s plight is Sofia (Oprah Winfrey in her own magnificent debut role). Sofia is introduced as nothing but solid strength. Nothing will topple her spirit. Not even Albert when he objects to Sofia’s marriage to his son, Harpo (Willard E Pugh), a weak man who only knows to resort to Albert’s ways with treating women. Albert learned his own means of abuse from his father. Sofia won’t tolerate any of that, and leaves with their son. Later, upon telling the prejudiced white mayor and his wife to go to hell with a punch, she is sent to jail for a number of years, blinded in one eye. Afterwards, she is forced to degrade herself as the personal servant to the mayor’s unaware and over the top, ditzy wife. This once immovable object to outside forces is absolutely broken.
In this rural south, Celie ascends from weakness to strength, while Sofia takes a very surprising and heartbreaking descent.
Spielberg offers gorgeous landscapes of wide open fields and grassy plains, particularly areas of purple flowers for the sisters to escape to and dance together. The flowers may have been delivered by God whom Celie resorts to writing to since she has no idea where her loving sister is located. Albert is cruel enough to hide Nettie’s letters from Celie. Spielberg has a few breathtaking shots of a perfectly round and orange sun, choosing even to close his film on that sun in the background of his final shot. His treatment of the sun in this particular film reminded me of his famous decor of a full moon in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.” There are a few parallels with both films. Broken homes and personal connections or the want for personal connection are thematic in both pictures. Celie is denied to be with her loving sister Nettie, or even to know her whereabouts. Elliot in “E.T.” is eventually denied his bond with his new alien friend. Through an earthly environment within nature do the pairs of characters within each respective film eventually get their personal moments together. When they’re torn apart from one another, it’s absolutely crushing. Spielberg has a way of putting you in the place of Celie and Elliot, where you can almost imagine those perfectly quiet and treasured moments you’ve experienced with your loved ones, and then the heartache of being torn apart from them. When those characters can be reunited at last it is an absolutely rewarding experience. It’s a moment when you cry tears of joy.
“The Color Purple” is inspiring for anyone suffering from loss or weighed down by what seems like the most insurmountable obstacles. There are thrilling scenes within this film that’ll make you applaud at Celie and Sofia’s will to lift themselves up and declare their freedom. It couldn’t be more evident during one of the best dinner table scenes I’ve ever seen. There’s a force of genuine power and might in that scene.
There are also great opportunities for laughter. Spielberg reminds you that humor and music, compliments of Quincy Jones and company, are part of what keeps us alive.
These women are told they are nothing and worthless. Their only purpose is to serve the men forced into their lives and to be used for unconscionable abuse. Yet Spielberg demonstrates with Menno Meyjes’ script that each time they are reminded of their lack of self worth, they are only made that much stronger.
Again, “The Color Purple” is a triumphant film.