By John H. Foote
Steven Spielberg, by 1984, was easily the most celebrated, successful film director on the planet and despite three Academy Award nominations as Best Director, and one unforgivable snub, he had still not won an Oscar. Spielberg considered the Academy Award to be a form of acceptance in Hollywood that he had arrived and was now one of them. When he bought the rights to Alice Walkers’ superb, spiky book “The Color Purple”, all of Hollywood knew his game.
What better way to win an Oscar than to do a film entirely unlike anything you have previously done! If Spielberg directed the film half as well as he had directed his other work, could they really ignore him?
In his mind, no chance.
The trouble was he would over direct every single aspect of the film, ruining the very anger and rage that made the book work. Where the book was a stunning narrative about a horribly abused, beaten and neglected woman who finally finds love in the bed of another woman, Spielberg stripped it of the very qualities which made it powerful and turned it into a Disney movie. Over the course of his career, Spielberg has made few bad films, Hook (1991) being by far the worst, but The Color Purple sits very low on his filmography.
I consider Spielberg the greatest director in the history of the cinema, possessed of unquestionable storytelling skills, unmatched technical knowledge, and a long under appreciated gift with actors only now being seen. In the eighties it was fashionable among academic and elite film critics and historians to scoff at his work because so much of it has been successful. Their arrogant thinking was, how can a massive box office hit be art? What can mainstream audiences possibly know about art? Obviously they had forgotten The Godfather (1972) which was a huge hit and declared a masterpiece by those same critics. Let me be clear, Spielberg has directed some of the greatest films in movie history which include Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Munich (2005), Lincoln (2012), Bride Of Spies (2015), and The Post (2017), each in its own way an extraordinary work. His filmography includes very few failures, but Hook, 1941 and The Color Purple are indeed failures.
Had he made The Color Purple the dark, visceral film that the book was, indeed he would have been declared a genius and won his Oscar. But he was not there as an artist yet, he was not prepared to go as dark and deep as was required.
Set around the Great Depression, the film tells the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), one of the most put upon and tragic women in movies. Abused and raped by her brutish father, the babies given away at birth, she is then given to a loutish man she calls Mister (Danny Glover) who treats her like a slave, there to cook, clean and have sex with. There are no kindnesses between them, no love. His children are equally horrible to her, she has only the love of her sister Nettie, who too is sent away.
Yet Celie perseveres, finding love in the arms of a singer her husband brings home. They kiss, the first bit of genuine tenderness Celie has been shown, bringing a wide smile to her face. She finds the courage to stand up to Mister and his horrible father, mostly through watching her daughter-in-law, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey, more than willing to slug any man who raises a hand to her. Celie is taught women need to stand together.
Having spent years believing her sister Nettie had abandoned her, she finds a stash of letters hidden by Mister in which Nettie describes her life in Africa, where she lives with Celie’s children. She lashes back at Mister, calling him out for what he is, cursing him that until he makes right what he has done to her, his life will be horrible.
My understanding from the book was that these people lived in abject poverty, yet Mister has a fine house, a sprawling sort of place with lots of land to work. They dress well, they are not broke by any means. When Celie breaks with Mister she opens a business and is very successful at what she does, surrounding herself with the women who matter to her. Perhaps Spielberg was afraid to show true poverty? To explore real racism? Instead he fills the screen with cartoon like colour, often so bright it is near blinding. There is so much beauty around Celie we wonder how people could be so cruel amidst such beauty. The world he paints is one created by Disney, not Alice Walker, the author of the book. One half expects animated characters to pop out of the forest and begin talking to the characters.
Where is the darkness of the book? The beatings and constant abuse? The lesbianism? The love and lust between Celie and Shug Avery?
And the ending, telegraphed by overwhelming music by Quincy Jones in one of the most invasive and obtrusive scores I have ever heard, one that tells you what to feel. As that music rises we see them, the Africans, come home, dressed in their colours, brighter than any colour in this land, as Mister slinks by, finally having done right. So overdone, so over the top and so very unnecessary!
When reading book I felt the seething rage of the writer in the wild injustices heaped upon Celie. While watching the film I did not because largely we saw little. We see Mister mistreat her, we see his children treat her poorly and we know what Mister did with her sister’s letters, but it all feels lightened and,forgive the term, but whitewashed. A wealthy director out of his element clearly wanting to make art, but frightened to go as dark as the art requires. Eight years later Spielberg would find that courage making a film close to his heart, Schindler’s List, his masterpiece. The Color Purple might have been close to his heart but for all the wrong reasons, he was not making great art, he was making an Oscar winner.
Whoopi Goldberg, best known as an underground comedian, was cast as Celie and gave a truly astounding performance. No one in Hollywood expected this from the actress, no one could have foreseen what she was capable of as a dramatic artist. What I think they forgot is that her comedy drew on her anguish, which is true of the great comics. Goldberg brought so much to Celie, but finally settled into a quiet dignity, though it took much to get her there.
Margaret Avery was electrifying as Shug, the singer Mister brings home but instead bonds with Celie. She is the first to compliment her, to kiss her with genuine tenderness, and to awaken in her a sense of belonging, of friendship.
Danny Glover is frightening as Mister, not so much for his violent acts but for what he does to Celie and her sister, which is pure, outright cruelty. By now, Glover was recognized as a great actor, and sure enough he shines here.
The Color Purple was met with mixed reviews. Roger Ebert hailed it the year’s best film, as did others, but more and more found the film tedious, filled with unnecessary sentiment. Overall, critics giving the film a negative review commented on how false the film seemed, how far Spielberg strayed from the powerful book, and more important I think, they asked why? That over the top, oh so intrusive music was savaged, the glorious cinematography that filled the screen with colour was attacked, and the sense of affluence Celie and Mister lived in rang untrue.
Then came the ultimate slap in the face for Steven Spielberg, the greatest and most savage humiliation he would suffer. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but incredibly Best Director was not among them. Now personally I do not believe Spielberg deserved a nomination for Best Director, but nor do I think it deserved nominations for Best Picture or several of the other nominations it received. But if you are going to nominate a film for 11 awards, how do you ignore the chief creative force of the film? It was as though the Academy was saying to him, “We decide who gets Oscars, not you.” Clearly, his decision to make the film was wrongheaded, and he suffered and endured a very public humiliation. Ignored, snubbed. Hurt, wounded.
Earlier I mentioned how I felt he over directed the film, and I stand by that. There is genuine ugliness in the early birth of her child, but then Celie and her sister dance among purple flowers, before she is given to Mister, and then encounters Shug. Every moment, every major dramatic moment is telegraphed by the worst score I had heard in a feature film since The Entity (1980). Syrupy, hopelessly sentimental, the film quickly becomes drivel, and that is on Spielberg.
Goldberg and Avery are exceptional, truly brilliant, but Oprah Winfrey plays one note, and becomes a complete bore very quickly.
I admire Spielberg, revere his work, but there was a time he was a selfish, self absorbed egotist who coveted an Oscar, felt it would validate him. He learned never make a film to win an Oscar, instead pour your heart and soul into the work, and let it speak for itself. The director did not believe anyone would even see Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and look what happened? Two Academy Awards for Best Director, massive box office and critical raves.
I hope one day Spike Lee remakes The Color Purple and brings to it all the darkness of the book.
Spielberg turned it into a PG Disney movie. Had rabbits and birds landed on Goldberg’s finger and began singing, I would not have been surprised. Not the worst film of Spielberg’s career, but easily the most disappointing. Spielberg turned one of the darkest, finest novels of the 20th century into a zip-a-dee-doo-dah experience. Kind of shameful.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.