“The Color Purple” allotted an impressive eleven Oscar nominations. But come awards night, its plum chance rotted and came away with nothing – a shut-out record for most category losses. (The Caucasian drama “Out of Africa” was the Best Picture that year). Still, with all the scruples at the time, this 1985 film is a curious film to unearth. It marks an auspicious start for some recognizable talents still relevant twenty-five years later.
“The Color Purple” is Steven Speilberg’s first foray into serious drama. The man has conquered the box office via sharks, aliens, and a cool guy named Indiana. It’s only natural to proceed with oppressed African-American women, right? Indeed, the movie, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, is a bit of a mismatch to the director’s sensibilities. The drama seems more complaisant and upbeat than I expected. The memorable parts are actually the comedic portions, filmed in silent giddy and communal joy. It’s nothing to complain about but somehow because of it, the movie lacks a fistful anger to punch up the drama.
“The Color Purple” paints the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), who, at 14, achingly gives birth to her second child. Her babies’ daddy is her daddy!! With her children taken away, she is then “married” off to Mister Johnson (Danny Glover), a man who treats Celie more as a servant than a wife. He keeps her afraid, sad, and dispirited. He lashes out verbal abuse: “You’re black. You’re poor. You’re ugly. You’re a woman. You’re nothing at all!”
But fret not for the poor gal, Celie connects with two wacky women who awaken her independence. She meets a spirited singer named Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), who uses her beauty and charm as an upper-hand over men, especially over Mister. Shug sweetens Celie’s bitter life, teaching her that a touch can lead to affection, not always bear-it-up abuse.
The second woman of influence is Sofia, the wife of Mister’s grown son. She is a vibrant, strong-willed woman who refuses to back down to any man. Sofia is played by the Oprah Winfrey who scores an Oscar nomination in the process. Her remarkable performance ranges from passionately comical to starkly weary. Oprah’s achievement is that she disappears into the role – a high praise for a woman who’s very popular with the world.
Whoopi Goldberg (in her film debut) is rather uncharacteristic in the lead role. There is barely any trace of her comic spunk, which energized “Ghost” and “Sister Act.” Her Celie is a mousy gal with resigned shoulders slumped forward. She proves to be most telling when she communicates through the eyes. It is through nuances like this that gives the film intimacy even if Spielberg mostly settles for geniality.
“The Color Purple” takes place in the early 1900’s – roughly a century ago. Since then, we’ve made progress in race and gender relations. As empowered as we are though, I still see remnants of hate and greed for power. People are so insecure that they put down others to boost their ego. Hopefully, we’ll transform into a more generous society, spreading the gospel of beauty instead of fear. This is the message of film and for me, it’s what makes it winning. No Oscar validation needed.