The Color Purple (1985)

Rating: C+

Dir: Steven Spielberg
Star: Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey

It says a good deal about the qualities of the film that the character of Celie (Goldberg) is exactly the sort of doormat whose presence in a film usually irritates Chris enormously, yet manages to enthrall her totally here. Celie is married to “Mister” (Glover) – that’s all she ever calls him – and puts up with an endless stream of abuse, both physical and mental, before finally finding the strength to rise up and leave him, and make her own way in the world. This takes a while, and eventually becomes a bit tedious, not least because Spielberg is a good enough film-maker not to need this level of overkill. We see Mister treat Celie badly once, we get the picture, but it does help that Goldberg brings much more to her role here than she has ever managed since. Much the same could be said of Oprah Winfrey as Sophie; both have since become caricatures of themselves, in the world of lame comedies and talk-shows respectively, which is something of a shame.

Less justifiable is perhaps the sterotyping on view: if you’re not both black and a woman, in this film you’re either a blithering idiot (whoops, there goes stepson Harpo, falling through another roof) or an utter bastard. It seems like political correctness run amok, even though the lesbian content of the book is severely toned-down, limited to one quick scene that doesn’t jeopardise the PG-13 rating. It’s certainly a fair point that, at the time this film was set, neither women nor blacks were truly “equal”. But even in comparison to other black women here, Celie is disappointingly passive. Sophie leaves Harpo rather than let him beat her; Shug (Avery) is a blues singer with a refreshingly modern approach to life; and even Celie’s sister, Nettie, is a missionary in Africa. Despite Goldberg’s fine performance, I’d probably rather have seen a film in which one of these complex, strong people was the central character, rather then Celie.

This is melodramatic stuff; I kept expecting Mister to tie Celie to the railroad tracks while twirling the ends of his moustache. Which might actually have been fun, it’s just that we expect more subtlety from Spielberg – and when we get it, the results are fabulous. In particular, the sequence cross-cutting between the lives of the two sisters in Africa and Georgia, climaxing with Celie finding herself holding a cut-throat at Mister’s throat. Just watch the way in which her hand trembles as she stands behind him; it’s a master-stroke, putting over a universe of feelings in one action. Even in the broadest of terms, moments like this prove Spielberg remains the master of “action cinema”.

But I wonder: was a Jewish man with a middle-class background perhaps the best choice to direct a movie centred on a poor, black, bisexual woman? Now, obviously there’s no reason per se why a film-maker should be constricted by his skin colour, but the liberal pandering here seems uncomfortably like a shallow Oscar-grab by Spielberg. It’s thus especially ironic that it was trounced at the Oscars, 7-0, by colonial epic Out of Africa, which largely reduces black people to set-dressing. In the end, I was unaffected by the film; I can certainly see and admire its strengths, but the flaws are too obvious for me to ignore. Guess this one will have to be filed alongside Pulp Fiction in the “Chris and I agree to differ” category.