Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” (1985)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out of Competition)

After several features completed in the Hollywood studio system, director Steven Spielberg had built up quite the reputation as a maker of spectacle-based “event films”.  Due to this success, he had friends in high places—President Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones to name a few.  And it was Mr. Jones who approached Spielberg after the completion of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) with the idea of adapting author Alice Walker’s seminal novel, “The Color Purple” into a feature film.   The plan was simple: Jones would produce, and Spielberg would direct.  In a rare display of humility that’s uncommon among most directors today, Spielberg was initially reluctant about helming the project, citing his existence as a white man disqualifying him from taking on an inherently African-American story.  Jones disagreed with Spielberg’s assessment, and shot back with some clever logic of his own: he wasn’t an alien when he made E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), so why should that kind of thinking prevent him from taking this job?

Jones made a pretty good argument, and as such, Spielberg took the helm.   It can be argued that he also came aboard because he wanted to expand his reputation; no doubt he felt he had more to offer than just big-budget spectacle; this was his opportunity to make a film in the interest of social good.  As such, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) became Spielberg’s first “serious” film- a streak that would eventually deliver him to the Oscar glory that long eluded him in 1993 with SCHINDLER’S LIST.

THE COLOR PURPLE is set in rural Georgia, and spans the years 1909-1937.  A poor woman from a poor family, Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is given away by her father to marry an abusive farmer named Albert (Danny Glover).  She endures a lonely, miserable life in which Albert drives Celie’s own sister away from her, while also making a cuckold of her each time he heads into the city to meet a glamorous singer named Shug Avery (Margarety Avery).  One day, Shug comes to stay with Albert and Celie, and the two women soon become friends.  They develop a deep love for each other, whereby Celie’s self-esteem is strengthened—and after a lifetime of being beaten down and humiliated by her tyrannical husband, she finally gains the strength of conviction to stand up to him and assert herself.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for an Oscar for her debut in THE COLOR PURPLE by fully embodying the low self-esteem brought about by a lifetime of mental and physical abuse, rape, incest, and the like.  Her Celie is meek, with a latent intelligence brought about by her sister teaching her how to read.  While Goldberg is now known primarily as a comedic actress, her performance here packs a real dramatic punch—and is easily her best.  Danny Glover plays her husband Albert, a sophisticated yet vindictive force of nature.  He plays the unfaithful, abusive bastard quite well.  Then there’s daytime TV mega-personality Oprah Winfrey, who also makes an Oscar-nominated film debut in THE COLOR PURPLE as Sofia, Albert’s son’s sassy, tempestuous wife.  Her character is subject to humiliation and scorn by white people who use her stubborn feistiness as an excuse to put her in jail.  By the end of the movie, she’s a broken shell of her former self.  The Big O isn’t really an actress by trade, but whenever she does go before the camera, she tends to be excellent.

Spielberg’s supporting cast also turns in notable performances, especially Margaret Avery and Laurence Fishburne.  As the beautiful songstress Shug, Avery adds a bit of glamor to the film as well as supplies it with a compelling lesbian subplot that’s never fully explored.  Fishburne plays the bit role of Swain, a friend to Albert’s son and a musician at the rickety dive bar they build together.  He doesn’t get to do a whole lot, but his inclusion is a reminder of his general association with the Film Brat generation of directors (as readers of this series will remember, he was frequently cast by Spielberg’s friend and filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola).

With the exception of Douglas Slocombe working on the INDIANA JONES films, Allen Daviau was shaping up to become Spielberg’s regular cinematographer.  Like E.T., Spielberg and Daviau decided that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was the best format to tell their story in (which is a little bit at odds with the scale Spielberg was pursuing).  Bold colors (especially purple) punctuate the frame, with golden sunlight and the pastoral setting rendered with a subtle tobacco-sepa tint.  Despite being somewhat of an intimate character drama, Spielberg employs sweeping crane and dolly movements to exaggerate the sense of scale.  This approach gives THE COLOR PURPLE the vibe of an old Hollywood musical in some instances, but the effect is more maudlin than romantic.  The earnestness of Spielberg’s tone and execution also works against him when the narrative gets dark, with the true horror of Celie’s plight swept under the rug and obscured by sunflowers peacefully swaying in the breeze.

THE COLOR PURPLE is the only theatrical feature film in which Spielberg does not retain the services of composer John Williams.  This is easily explained, however, because with Jones—easily more famous for his music—acting as the producer, it’s only logical that he’d want to do the score as well.  Jones proves adept at creating a sweeping, cinematic score.  Lush, romantic strings evoke Williams’ work to the best of their ability, but Jones’ mimicry of the maestro’s style only reminds us that the maestro himself is absent.  Jones’ score is complemented by a small selection of ragtime source cues, Billy Holiday tracks, and even some seasonal Christmas music.

The subject matter of the film allows Spielberg to indulge in both of his most-used thematic conceits.  His fascination with the 1930’s/pre-WW2 time period (most easily seen in 1941 (1979) and the INDIANA JONES films) gets the opportunity to explore a different, understated side of that era: America’s rural south.  His continuing exploration of the absent/negligent father dynamic is manifested in Albert’s character.  While Albert is a prominent figure within the narrative, we don’t really ever see him being a father to his kids.  They’re simply human presences in the house that he has little interaction with, let alone any sort of paternal relationship with.  Several of Spielberg’s technical signatures, like low angle compositions and lens flares, are all present and accounted for.

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THE COLOR PURPLE is firmly ensconced in Spielberg’s expansive, earnest style—sometimes to the detriment of what the narrative requires.  This is illustrated in the homosexual subplot between Celie and Shug, which Spielberg shies away from at the last second and never comes back to for the remainder of the film.  Essentially, it’s a wimp-out; a caving to mainstream aesthetics and values.  It would have been much bolder and courageous to flesh out and explore Celie’s lesbian relationship, and most certainly would have created a better legacy for the film than the modest one it currently enjoys.

The film was well-received upon its release, securing no less than eleven Oscar nominations—albeit with the curious absence of Spielberg on the Best Director shortlist (a repeat of what happened with JAWS (1974)).   Objectively speaking, it’s impossible to know why this happened, but we can speculate.  Maybe there was a general notion among Academy voters that Spielberg wasn’t a “prestige” director?  That the success of his spectacle films boxed him in?  If so, it would definitely lend support to Spielberg’s motivations for taking the job in the first place.  THE COLOR PURPLE, to my eyes, hasn’t aged terribly well—its overwrought sense of melodrama is the very definition of an “Oscar bait” film.

Regardless, THE COLOR PURPLE is a very important film within Spielberg’s body of work.  It marks the moment when Spielberg proved that he was capable of making films that were more substantial and serious than his already-emotionally-effecting spectacle work.  In many ways, it began the era of Mature Spielberg, brought about by his ascension to the head of his own family (his first son was born during production of THE COLOR PURPLE).  He had bigger responsibilities now, and as such his responsibility to his art demanded a refined, mature touch.  In shooting his first serious social issues film, he proved he didn’t simply want to be a great filmmaker—he wanted to be an important one.

THE COLOR PURPLE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Warner Brothers.


Produced by: Quincy Jones, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg

Written by: Menno Meyjes

Director of Photography: Allen Daviau

Production Designer: J. Michael Riva

Editor: Michael Kahn

Composer: Quincy Jones