Spielberg: The Color Purple

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Celie, the impoverished, helpless protagonist of The Color Purple, begins the narrative by having her child is stolen from her by a cruel, oppressive man. By the end of Act I, her sister is driven away from her by a different cruel, oppressive man. Celie, like the protagonist of The Sugarland Express (and hardly alone in the Spielberg canon), wants her family reunited. Unlike the protagonist of The Sugarland Express, Celie is not only reactive, she is oppressed, beaten down, fearful. She can’t even open her keeper’s mail box, much less leave home in pursuit of her lost family.

The structure of The Color Purple goes something like this:

ACT I (0:00-28:30):
This act could be called “Celie’s Family Torn Asunder.” Celie’s child is taken from her (and we hear of an earlier child who was similarly taken), she is traded by her father to a local farmer, who beats her mercilessly and treats her like dirt. Her sister Nettie runs away from home, away from her and Celie’s father, to be with her. The farmer, “Mister,” sets his eyes on Nettie, but when he attacks her she retaliates, and he drives her from the house. She leaves, reluctantly, promising that nothing but death can keep her and Celie apart.

ACT II (28:30-45:30): Many years pass. Celie grows from girl to woman. Mister’s son Harpo brings home a woman named Sophia. Sophia stands in contrast to both Celie and Nettie. She’s bossy, proud, short-tempered and unbendable. Celie, seeing an opportunity to get back at her tormentors, sparks a conflict between Sophia and Harpo. Her plan backfires and Sophia leaves Mister’s farm.

ACT III (45:30-1:24:00) Shug Avery, a colorful blues singer and an old flame of Mister’s, comes to stay on Mister’s farm. Shug, like Sophia, also stands in contrast to Celie. She is both weaker, in that she is drawn to men’s power, but also stronger, as she seems to move independently of them and has learned to use them to her advantage. Both Mister and Celie are obsessed with Shug. Shug initially calls Celie ugly and laughs in her face, but as she gets better (it’s not explained why she’s ill, but some sort of substance abuse seems likely) and gets back into singing (at Harpo’s backwoods juke-joint) she warms to Celie, writes and sings a song for her and even makes love to her. Shug then tries to enter the local church, but is rebuffed by the minister. She leaves Mister’s farm. Celie tries to go with her but loses her nerve. This is Celie’s low-point.

ACT IV (1:24:00-2:07:00) Sophiamouths off to the wrong person and ends up pistol-whipped, jailed and turned into a servant to a white man’s idiot wife, Miss Millie. Shug returns, now married to a grinning showboater, Grady. Mister and Grady bond over their mutual lust for Shug while Shug goes to the mailbox and discovers a letter to Celie from her long-lost sister Nettie. While Mister is off drinking, Shug and Celie discover a whole cache of letters from Nettie, where she outlines her life as a missionary in Africa and tells Celie that her children are alive and well and living as Africans. Now that Celie knows that she has a family elsewhere, she leaves Mister and goes with Shug to Memphis. Sophia leaves Miss Millie and returns to her home.

ACT V (2:07:00-2:30:00) An act of forgiveness and reconciliation. In Celie’s absence, Mister’s farm devolves into chaos as he staggers around in an alcohol-induced haze. Celie’s father dies, whereupon she learns that her father was actually her step-father and her real father has left her the family house. Now an empowered, independent landowner, Celie opens a pants-making business and prospers. Shug returns and takes up singing at Harpo’s again, but then repents and leads a crowd of sinners to the local church, where we learn that the minister is also Shug’s father. Meanwhile, Mister, having bottomed out, turns over a new leaf and secretly helps Nettie return to the US. Celie is reunited with her sister and her children.

NOTES: Spielberg, obviously chafing at the limitations of genre, steps way outside his comfort zone with this, his most complex narrative yet. The Color Purple has a protagonist who is frustrated in her desires and incapable of action until well past the two-hour mark. When her want is rewarded it is without her direct action. There is something Dickensian about the narrative, a life-spanning story of the poor and helpless suffering at the hands of brutal oppressors. But there is also something Capra-esque about it; Celie reminds me a lot of George Bailey, who longs to get out of his small town but is tied there by family obligations. George wants to get away in spite of his family, Celie wants to get away to find her family, both are stuck, both are incapable of action, and both are rewarded in the end in spite of their inability to leave town.

There is also something Capra-esque about Spielberg’s direction. As with It’s a Wonderful Life, The Color Purple is a story of extreme sadness and frustrated desire, yet the direction of each emphasizes the warmth and comedy of the narrative instead of the bleakness and despair. The performances in The Color Purple are sometimes startlingly broad — some of the scenes would absolutely not look out of place in 1941. Spielberg’s typically fluid, seamless direction doesn’t feel like it matches the material and leads to hyperbole and cartoonishness. Everything is overdone — Harpo isn’t just a poor carpenter, he’s a bumbling oaf who repeatedly falls through rooftops. His juke-joint doesn’t merely leak in the rain, it becomes a veritable indoor shower. Miss Millie isn’t merely a poor driver, she’s a caricature of a hysterical, swerving madwoman. Mister’s farm doesn’t just fall into ruin, he ends up with goats in the kitchen and shutters falling off the windows on cue. Shug doesn’t merely refuse a poorly-cooked breakfast, she hurls it across the hallway so that it leaves primary-colored splatters on the wall.

When the scenes don’t move as broad comedy they move as suspense — there are several sequences that would fit comfortably into Hitchcock. What the scenes do not work as is moments of genuine human interaction, which feels like a loss to me — the action feels like it’s all choreographed for the camera instead of the camera happening to witness moments of spontaneous behavior. Which is to say, I feel like Spielberg took a bold step forward by choosing this very non-genre narrative to shoot, but then shot it as though it were a genre piece anyway, relying on his sense of rhythm and his ability to manufacture suspense and emotional involvement to propel his largely plotless story forward.

Spielberg softens the brutality of the narrative in other ways as well. The antagonists of The Color Purple are all foolish, stumbling blowhards. Mister is a threat to Celie, but we never feel like he’s a threat to us — we can see he’s a petty tyrant easily bested. Likewise, Mister’s father is a muttering old codger and Miss Millie is a squealing, bug-eyed idiot. This helps us forgive them and aids Act V’s motions of reconciliation (which are not in the book), but it robs the story of drama. How effective an antagonist would Mr. Potter be in It’s a Wonderful Life if, at the end of the movie, it turned out that he was the one who brought Harry Bailey home and donated the money to get George out of debt?

The more I think of it, I’m not at all sure what to make of Act V of The Color Purple. Mister redeems himself, but does not announce it. Celie finds out that the man who raped her as a child was not her father but her stepfather, and Shug Avery begs for forgiveness from her own estranged father. After two hours of telling us about the horrors visited upon women by men, it’s like the story, in the end, pulls its punch — Mister isn’t so bad after all, Celie’s father is not only innocent but a benefactor, and Shug is all too desperate for the approval not only of her father but of the patriarchal church he represents. None of this is motivated by plot — it just sort of happens out of the blue. Celie even seems baffled herself: she accepts her father’s house but tells the previous owner she still doesn’t understand how she got it. The previous owner’s explanation doesn’t help very much.

It’s well known that The Color Purple is the only Spielberg movie that is not scored by John Williams, and yet I’d be hard-pressed to tell you how what Quincy Jones does here is very different from what Williams would have done. There is a lot of musical heartstring-tugging, and a good deal of Mickey-Mousing as well. Which is a shame, because there is a little shadow-movie within The Color Purple that is related to O Brother, Where Art Thou, a movie about the history of southern black American music that could have been fascinating. (The Color Purple is now, of course, a musical, so I suppose it’s not too late.)

free web site hit counter


5 Responses to “Spielberg: The Color Purple”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for delineating why I disliked this movie so intensely when I saw it during its original run.

    What I make of Act V is that Spielberg had to play out his obsession with the father/child (really, father/son) relationship — specifically, their redemption through reconciliation. The guy can’t help it. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t come organically from the material, but Spielberg had to get it in there anyway. It’s as if he can’t imagine an emotional payoff that doesn’t repair the broken bond of fatherhood.

    You can trace this theme not only through Spielberg’s movies but through a tremendous number of Hollywood films that he influenced directly or indirectly. But that’s another issue.


  2. curt_holman says:

    Since was off hosting this over the weekend, I feel compelled to share this story:

    As college students, and I and some of our friends saw The Color Purple when it opened. Not surprisingly, he and I were major sarcastic movie-commenters back then (and it remains true today). At Rocky IV, one of our friends even got up and moved away from us, I guess because we weren’t being respectful enough.

    Anyway, at the part when Mister was throwing Celie’s sister off the farm, I turned to and was going to make an inappropriately snarky remark, and was taken aback to see that was weeping. Copiously. So I froze in that Daffy-Duck-with-mouth-open-and-outstretched-finger pose, said nothing and turned back to the movie.

    And wept a total of five times during the film: the time above, when Oprah arrived for Christmas, when Oprah left FROM Christmas five minutes later, one time I can’t remember, and at the end. And when the credits were rolling I looked to and he eventually breathed “I think it’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.”

    The shoe was on the other foot a few weeks later when we saw Brazil for the first time at a huge, long-shuttered movie palace and I was rendered similarly speechless.

  3. teamwak says:

    The first time I watched this as a teenager, I bawled all the way through it.

    I havent seen it for years though. Maybe I should watch it with older eyes and see what I think now.

    Loving this series, Todd. Looking forward to Amistad, Minority Report, as well as Schindlers List (which I started to watch last night as it was on, and stayed to the end again blubbing like a baby!)

    Good old Senor Spielbergo

  4. First time I saw this movie was last year and liked it. For what its worth I didn’t think much of the Acts or break it down story wise—just saw it as it was, a watchable movie. Some sad heart wrenching scenes no doubt, but like written above, some lighthearted moments to lighten up the darkness. A reason I stayed away from serious dramatic movies throughout my twenties. Now in mid thirties I’m catching up.