With the racist inanity of Temple of Doom weighing on his shoulders, Spielberg decided to tackle his first fully serious subject, moving away from his run of nearly infallible blockbusters to adapt Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize winner that tackled racism and sexism in early 1900s Georgia. As a transitional work, The Color Purple betrays some of Spielberg's later issues with his more severe works and does not find the same sense of urgency that would come from more homogeneous mixtures of this new territory with the director's classic style. Yet it also proves that Spielberg had more versatility than his critics, and probably his admirers, would have guessed and marks the second turning point in his career after the impact of Jaws.
The protagonist of Walker's story, Celie Harris (Whoopi Goldberg), grows up at the dawn of the 20th century in the horrid conditions of post-slavery blacks in the South. She lives on a rundown farm surrounded by land that her lazy, vile father does not tend, happy only when she runs through the overgrown meadows of the property with her little sister, Nettie. Only 14 at the start of the film, Celie gives birth to her second child by her father, who steals away baby Olivia to hide from Celie's mother just as he did her firstborn, Adam. The child version of Celie, tiny and frail, has no willpower whatsoever, fractured by the rapes and the inability to even raise her children. Thus, when her father seeks to pawn her off to rid himself of the final reminder of his shame, Celie doesn't put up a fuss even though she's made to marrow a middle-aged widower (Danny Glover) who treats her like a slave master.
Glover's character, simply called Mister in the novel but here given the full title Albert Johnson to stress the underlying banality and unremarkable nature of this one man out of many, certainly doesn't look like any ordinary man. Albert lusts for the attractive (and even younger) Nettie, and Spielberg arranges a fantastic shot with Glover looming over a clothesline behind the two girls in the foreground, emphasizing how young they both are and how Mister terrorizes each, Celie with his cruel orders and routine beatings and Nettie with his predatory advances. Nettie teaches her older sister to read while staying with her, and the two find some measure of happiness together to lessen he strain of Albert’s tyranny. When Nettie emphatically rejects Albert’s advances, however, the man throws the girl out of his house and vows to keep the two sisters from ever communicating. So, Celie is left to fend for herself against her husband, made to care for his unruly children who can't be more than five or six years younger than her. When Albert tells his grown son years later that "wives is like children," his sardonic advice seems less an insult to women and more a literal acknowledgment of his carnal tastes.
Alice Walker initially questioned the choice of Spielberg as director, a fair objection considering the entire point of the novel is that men (and specifically white men) run the world. Walker relented when she saw E.T. and considered the director's portrayal of the alien and the abuse it suffered as that of an ethnic minority. However, Spielberg's thematic concerns make him a surprisingly easy choice for the film: his own history of father issues translates well to a larger critique of masculinity, while his earnest, if naïve, sentimentality ensures that he tries his best to break down racial barriers.
He's certainly the right person to capture the constant heartbreak of Celie's life as written by Walker. A young Celie mourns the loss of her second daughter, only to head to the store for her husband and find the town reverend's wife carrying Olivia. Desreta Jackson, the young actor playing the teenage Celie, has a moment as memorable as anything the adults get, in which she cannot reveal her relation to the baby in the woman's hands yet asks to hold the child even though she barely has the strength to stand as she gazes upon the baby with infinite sadness. Spielberg fills the film with such scenes, pouring abuse on the poor, black women in ways that emphasizing the nightmarish patriarchy that governs society.
Yet he uses those heartbreaking events to build Celie. Albert's son, Harpo, falls in love with Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a headstrong woman who defied the sexual and physical assault of the men in her life and grew into a fighting woman. Her presence gives Celie her first example of a feisty woman, but she's been so broken by her own trauma that when Harpo complains to his stepmother that he cannot control his wife, Celie actually suggests that he should beat her. Sofia finds Celie shortly thereafter sporting a mark under her eye and gives the woman an earful about not taking this punishment (amusingly, Spielberg then shows Harpo, the entire left half of his face swollen from Sofia's retaliation). But Sofia eventually mouths off to the wrong person, the wife of the town mayor who asks Sofia to be her maid, and she finds herself in jail being beaten into catatonia. When she finally gets out, she's too broken to object to working for "Miss Millie" after all, whose perceived magnanimity toward blacks prevents her from seeing that she had a woman tortured into madness before enslaving her. Even when she lets Sofia go home for Christmas after eight years in jail and work, Miss Millie manages to drive the screws in deeper when she cannot figure out how to drive her car back alone and panics in the presence of so many black people, forcing Sofia to take her back home.
Meanwhile, Albert continues to lust for everyone but Celie, though that seems to be OK with her, given her traumatic experience with sex. She does not even object when Albert brings his old flame, jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), to live with them, clearly inviting his mistress to stay in the house. Sick with fever, Shug insults Celie's looks when she arrives, but the two quickly form a close bond, though Spielberg only occasionally broaches the explicit lesbian relationship of the book for fear of getting slapped with an X rating* (something he later regretted). Shug's free spirit brings out a heretofore unseen spark in Celie, who at first shows a surprising amount of gumption by tacitly standing by and watching Albert "cook" his romantic meal for his mistress, refusing to help him seduce his mistress and barely suppressing laughs as the man makes an ass of himself. Shug installs herself at the juke joint Harpo builds, and her performances engender a joie de vivre in Celie so strong that, when Shug leaves, Celie faints in agony.
Filling many of the gaps, however, is a surprising amount of light comedy. Harpo has so many pratfalls that they simply stop becoming funny at a certain point, while Sofia's tirades offer great amusement, her scenes possibly marking the most honest Oprah has ever been in front of a camera. But too much devolves into the same bad slapstick of 1941, especially a brawl in Harpo's speakeasy that may as well have been the huge fight sequence in Spielberg's misstep and placed it in a time machine. These flashes of immaturity would be negligible if they did not inform the larger context of Spielberg's direction, which occasionally cannot commit fully to the sadness on the screen. The scene of Celie and Nettie's childhood separation is so clumsily executed, from stilted dialogue to bad acting from the girl playing Nettie to shameless editing, that I half-considered that the director decided to spare us a moment before truly breaking our hearts later.
Such moments stand out even more when compared to some of the fantastic editing and structuring Spielberg does elsewhere. Right after Albert throws Nettie off his farm, the director cuts to Celie preparing to shave her husband with a straight razor, and Spielberg plays up the chance to return to the suspense of Jaws by magnifying the ambient sounds of young Harpo rocking on a creaking swing as flies buzz and the sound of the razor dragging along stubble crackles in the speakers. Only when the scene is over do we realize that Celie was shaking during the shave because she could not bring herself to slash her tormentor's throat, not because she had to keep herself from doing so. Spielberg echoes this scene near the end when Celie discovered decades worth of hidden letters from her sister and finally decides to free herself, only for Shug to intervene. The editing of Celie reading those letters alone stands as one of the most memorable sequences in a Spielberg film, as Celie's joy at hearing of her sister's exploits in Africa with Adam and Oliva and their adoptive parents manifests itself in a momentary crumbling of reality, juxtaposing Celie's leisurely reading in the park with elephants marching through the jungle, rain leaking through the roof into metal pans with the hollow tinkle of a marimba, even a chain gang being monitored by white guards and a group of indigenous Africans made to plow a road for a Westernized company setting up operations in the country. The flood of backlogged memories, a jumble of the imagined beauties of Africa, visions of Celie's children grown up and well-educated and Nettie still in her childhood body practically dancing around the savanna, offer a rush of euphoria as deeply felt as the ultimate reunion of the family members at the end.
The Color Purple contains Spielberg's fast tracking shots and his energetic mini-cranes even when not shooting such scenes, but Walker's strong narrative gives him the opportunity to let a film grow without much action. The greatest pleasure of watching the film is not those moments that hark back to the director's early work but the joy of seeing him apply his talents as a master storyteller to the work of another great storyteller. We get to see not big payoffs but the gradual evolution of a character, building off the example of inspirational women who support her when she finally does assert herself, but ultimately she must be the one to make that definitive step. Through Walker, Spielberg offers up the most thought-provoking angle on his father issues when Celie tells Albert as she leaves him, "Everything you done to me, already done to you," referencing Albert's own father, who clearly imparted his sexist egomania onto his son.
So, the film may suffer slightly from Spielberg not having worked out the kinks in transplanting his grander manipulation into a smaller type of movie, and the 150-minute feature sags in the middle, but overall The Color Purple hints toward both the good and bad aspects of the director's future work, and Spielberg's plucky, nerdy innocence gets him off the hook (here, at least) in a few places where another white filmmaker might have felt more condescending. The subject material would likely have benefited from direction by a person who truly understood and even experienced the abuse felt by the characters, but when Spielberg builds Celie to the point that her defiant retort to Albert's final insult that she'll never make it on her own because she's a woman, one almost feels as if the entire film has come to life to show solidarity with her.
*Incidentally, I watched some videos recently of Oprah holding some PMRC-related shows from the late-'80s/early-'90s in which she clearly came down on the side of Tipper Gore. I found it amusing that she did so when the same mentality kept Spielberg afraid of fully working with a bestseller that won the Pulitzer Prize for fear that an X rating would keep the film from being taken seriously, or even getting any kind of fair distribution.