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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Literature > African American > The Color Purple (1985/Warner Blu-ray)

The Color Purple (1985/Warner Blu-ray)


Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: B-     Film: B-



In what turned out to be a transitional film for Steven Spielberg, his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is some of his best and worst work, all in the same film, yet the film has a one-of-a-kind chemistry that can celebrate its greatest triumph as a work that break the race barrier.  Too bad it does it at a very heavy price.


To get the bad out of the way, you have Spielberg trying to tell a story about the Black Experience, experience of the oppression of women and of all kinds of poverty that offers many texts for him and the screenplay by Menno Meyjes has no choice but to cut down aspects of Walker’s book.  Then there is the film text coming from a male filmmaker, negating Miss Walker’s many female points, even glossing over them (compare the Celie/Shug relation in the film to the book, and reading the book or not is no excuse and besides the point).


Then there is Spielberg’s lack of knowledge of almost anyone African American, which leads to his interpretation of some of the characters in a language of an old Disney film, namely the ever-controversial animated/live-action Song Of The South.  He loves the Disney cannon of work and in all his early films addresses many of them, including actual films showing up on TV.  When he was criticized for being wrong and even racist in this respect, but the other factor is the input of Quincy Jones who constantly defended his input as what he saw.  This was especially key in the very different from Disneyesque sequences in Juke Joints which would be less likely part of any Spielberg cannon outside of possibly old Jazz films.


Not to say the film was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, but this was Spielberg’s most collaborative effort to this day and that has made it ever rough and uneven.  It is also why it does not work as directly well as Amistad, yet The Color Purple remains popular and stands alone as a rare one-of-a-kind Spielberg film.  Why?  Because what does work is so powerful that it mows over so much that does not or is incidental to the core Spielberg is able to keep the focus on.


At its base is the story of Celie, who is constantly and endlessly rejected, hated, assaulted, treated as worthless and disposable, with no future or hope, yet she is a good person and a happy one.  However, her life is mostly a living hell and when “Mr.” (Danny Glover in a nuanced, thankless role) shows up, he has found a perfect victim.  Celie is played by two actresses and when she becomes an adult as Whoopi Goldberg (Tina Turner turned down the role saying she already lived it once and that was enough), the transition is totally believable, all the rejections at all times painfully authentic and showing his growing power as more than just a feel-good filmmaker, her plight never becomes a joke, a celebrated ugliness or a spoof of itself.


That is enough to make it a beloved film with loyalty and fans after all these years and all the changes in our society.  Oprah Winfrey made her acting debut here with Goldberg, Margret Avery gives an ever-underrated performance as Shug (for which she played a high price in her future career in the Reagan Era) and the rest of the cast is giving it its all.  You can see all this and that is where the film totally connects with the book.  It is also made possible by Spielberg being brutally honest about the strong common denominators between the Black Experience and Jewish Experience in the ugly truth of the hate and rejection to the point of implied genocide becoming actual genocide entails in both journeys at their worst.


That is why the film was such a hit and step forward for all involved.  It is a learning experience for all and the growth happens before your eyes, in all the painful moments, in all the moments of self-discovery and boldness of scenes that went over the heads of many.  Yes, the Academy could not honor it all the way having its own issues with African American discourse and those who noted that only Spielberg could get it made with his clout turned out to be sadly correct.  This film led to the Black New Wave led by Spike Lee trying to establish said discourse outside of exploitation films.


By the end of the film, the glory is shared by all, but there is the ugly, haunting bit of control and figure of the father (bad father here with Glover) that these women never totally have their free space and what was meant to be a powerful ending now has a new sinister overtone.  Black men thought the film bashed them to no end and this was valid to an extent, yet Hip Hop culture’s exploitive side (not totally established at the time) shows some of the critique was sound and partly valid before its total rise years later.


One thing the film brings up are issues that were hardly spoken let alone shown on screen, but it was a beginning and this film ended Hollywood’s false belief that big money productions with African American casts were box office poison (which was based on other slavery films bombing, along with the box office failure of Sidney Lumet’s also-problematic version of the musical The Wiz) and those seeing this film at the time also ignored problems with the film because doing any film about the Black experience was so very, very rare.  This film was a return of the repressed, of voices not only silent, but being kept silent by a new era of repression and Civil Rights shockingly rolled back.


So in all this and with all its problems, The Color Purple was a special kind of triumph outside of the text of the film.  My first theatrical screening had a mixed audience and a great one, one smart enough to know the hidden truth.  They followed the film all the way and like Spielberg’s best films, went wild during the best scenes and connected with all the characters.  The film was a hit and though its has its flaws, they don’t matter any more than the ugly insults and assaults (verbal, physical and otherwise) the film ultimately spends its entire time being a living, breathing criticism of.  It is a film about self-worth at its best and rarely has any film before or since been so bold on the subject.


Even hiding behind the safety of his father issues, this is one of the most subversive and effective works he will ever make, even prophetic of the troubles ahead in and out of the African American community.


When Barack Obama was elected, Right Wing reactionaries tried to say (among other confused white folk) that it had something to do with The Cosby Show, though none of them said The Jeffersons or even Good Times, two superior TV series to Cosby’s lesser blockbuster series.  If any work in film or TV helped build that bridge, it was this film, bringing the possibility of unity in the ugliest of situations together that deserves the most credit.  Even if those conjuring The Huxtables are hucksters of their own making, and we all know which cast member of this film helped make that Presidency possible.  They believed what she believed and a new era has begun.


If you verify the facts, it will turn out it all goes back to The Color Purple, helping those silent (and silented) voices claim their future once and for all.  That is why the film is worth revisiting and led to Spielberg’s adult films (Munich, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) eventually working so well.  Now you can see for yourself with all that in mind.



The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image is pretty good and very close often to the 35mm print I saw many years ago, but fleshtones can be off at times and the color may be accurate often, but this can be a little uneven overall in presentation.  Video Red have a certain limit in the best HD could be the underlying issue, but this is superior to any previous home video release of the film and Director of Photography Allen Daviau delivers the key look to the film that only subtly changes as Celie’s life and world do.


The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix is an upgrade from the Dolby analog A-type theatrical soundtrack, but dialogue shows its age a little more than the score by co-producer Quincy Jones, which sounds more dynamic than any other sound here.  Yes, the film has a quiet quality, but some of the age shows too despite the best efforts to record it at the time.


Extras in this DigiPak Book version includes 40 nicely illustrated pages with text information, while the Blu-ray adds Cast-Focused Feature Galleries, Theatrical Trailers and four previously produced Making Of featurettes: Conversations With The Ancestors: The Color Purple From Book To Screen, A Collaboration Of Spirits: Casting & Acting The Color Purple, The Color Purple: The Musical and Celebrating A Classic: The Making Of The Color Purple.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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