A World of Difference
Michael Koresky on The Color Purple

The Color Purple is where Steven Spielberg’s real trouble begins. Forget 1941, a weird blip on the radar of a success story that hasn’t really let up since 1975. That mutant toy-train-set of a film was and is considered a prime example of over-reaching, but only in terms of scale: Spielberg dug too deep into Hollywood’s pockets and came back with a box-office clinker; if the film had somehow clicked with audiences in the intended It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World manner, retrospective regard wouldn’t be nearly so harsh, and it might have occupied the same plane of casual respect afforded, say, The Blues Brothers. No, the charge against 1985’s The Color Purple has nothing to do with money; it was a hit. However, it too is a film that has consistently been regarded as over-reaching—but in a different fashion, one that has perpetually dogged the director ever since.

It was touted as his first “adult” film (a ridiculous tag that supposes that such emotionally rich works as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial have no currency for grown-ups by virtue of their genres), presumably because it hailed from a Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller and it featured no aliens, sharks, or gigantic falling boulders. More daunting, it was a novel by a black female author, and quite specifically and unavoidably about the black experience in the early part of twentieth-century America. As if that weren’t enough, the property’s “adult” cachet was compounded by its rather overt sexuality: it’s gradually, and in a beautifully unsensational manner, revealed in Alice Walker’s book that protagonist Celie is a lesbian, and her flowering is described in poetically explicit first-person accounts. So, who was this starry-eyed, under-40, Ohio-bred, heterosexual Jew to swoop in and tell this tale? What had he done to earn such sensitive material? Plus, he had already directed four of the most profitable films ever made—Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.—and shouldn’t he have been satisfied with that?

The resistance to the idea of Spielberg as a journeyman director is indicative of our need to put our artists, commercial and otherwise, into clearly marked boxes, but it’s also rather unique, perhaps as a response to his gargantuan, almost otherworldly success. Two of the directors Spielberg has consistently cited as major influences, John Ford and David Lean, were hardly known for simply doing one thing over and over, even if they’re often narrowly tagged as Western Man and Mr. Historical Epic, respectively. Cinematic showmen—artists and entertainers, in other words—they brought aesthetic consistency to versatile material, from war pictures to westerns to romances and melodramas. There’s no science-fiction or horror or overtly serial-cribbed adventure in those annals, but it bears keeping in mind that such genres were largely disreputable pre-Spielberg (with the odd Kubrickian exception). It’s fun to imagine what Ford or Lean might have done with a special-effects-driven megaproduction; we can only assume it may have looked something like Close Encounters or Jaws or Raiders. Despite his outlandishly fearsome Hollywood standing, Spielberg never had the luxury of jumping out of those genres that made him without being criticized as trying too hard. The Color Purple, hot on the heels of his divisive yet still enormously successful yuck-fest Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was clearly as far from what he had previously done as could be imagined.

The leap, in one year’s time, from that postmodern pastiche geek-show to this somber yet sentimental drama of a young black woman’s slow ride to dignity is the most extreme example of the almost perverse juxtapositions that mark Spielberg’s career (in 1993, June’s Jurassic Park anticipating December’s Schindler’s List; in 1997, The Lost World giving way to Amistad a half-year later). Such a pattern doesn’t feel indicative of a “one for them, one for me” philosophy, as the “personal” films for Spielberg are not often the least commercial; rather it seems more an expression of an alternately winning and hapless entertainer, desperate for the next big thrill. The property of The Color Purple came to Spielberg the way most things happen in Hollywood: it was brought to him by a producer, his faithful Kathleen Kennedy, although in this case Spielberg claims it was recommended for him to read not as a filmmaker, but as a friend. His concurrent projects as producer in 1985 included such seemingly disposable popcorn flicks as Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes, and the labor-of-love TV series Amazing Stories. It’s clear from interviews that he knew The Color Purple was a way to prove something to the skeptics who mistook his fantastical films as strictly for kids, but it was also a story he claims to have felt very strongly about, so much so that he took only the minimum salary he was contractually required to by the Director’s Guild, and used it strictly for cost overages. Perhaps in retrospect it was a project with which he put too much pressure on himself to make an impression. The Color Purple often feels like it’s mounting its own defense, relating its character study with an arsenal of expressionistic cinematic techniques so spectacularly artful that they leave little room for any sense of human spontaneity. In doing so, it often feels wildly inappropriate, especially for a film so burdened by questions of racial and sexual representation.

That said, it’s also a remarkable work of Hollywood mastery, and its sheer emotional impact makes it one of Spielberg’s great achievements. This is not merely in terms of craft, an easy fallback when discussing this director’s work. There’s an irreducible beauty in the way Spielberg treats Alice Walker’s characters—ever-strengthening Celie; her inverse, Sophia, brawny before beaten-down; that fount of eroticism, Shug Avery; abusive yet sympathetically wayward Mister, a.k.a Albert; shiftless yet good-natured Harpo; the pure, phantomlike presence of Celie’s sister, Nettie—that approaches the divine. They become the living, breathing testaments to what the author refers to in the title itself: “I think God gets pissed off when you pass the color purple in a field of green and don’t notice it.” These are the weak and the strong, victims and victimizers, but none are good or evil, black or white. Cinematographer Allen Daviau’s warmth (call it that Spielbergian glow, if it tickles your fancy) bestows on each of them a non-patronizing benevolence that doesn’t just make them the principals of a novel made flesh, but rather the characters in their own epic stories of self-actualization. Spielberg has many times over the years stated his desire to make a musical, and one can see how The Color Purple easily could have been one, with each character so clearly going through symphonic waves of triumph and desolation. (In a 1982 interview with Australian 60 Minutes to promote E.T., Spielberg made casual mention that he’s “planning a musical with Quincy Jones.” Clearly this project became The Color Purple somewhere along the way.)

The music that is there is the one aspect that instantly sets the film apart from all other theatrical Spielberg films. The score was written not by John Williams but by Jones, and features a handful of original songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Miss Celie’s Blues.” Cynics could call the decision to hire Jones a sop to Spielberg’s critics ready to level accusations of inauthenticity to a film about the African-American experience whose crew was largely white. Toggling between a melodic, sentimental romanticism that one could conceivably mistake for that of Williams, an Aaron Copland-esque Americana theme, and a gospel grandiosity, Jones’s score, which is also punctuated by the occasional harmonica twang, is a pastiche that has hardly escaped criticism itself. The director uses it in much the same emphatic way he likes to employ Williams’s scores: the less kind call it slathering, while defenders might praise its nonstop presence as a way of creating an all-consuming hyper-emotionality generally reserved for melodrama, an almost pathological euphoria (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, for instance, thanks to its nearly constant musical swell, feels as much like a cinematic symphony as Hitchcock’s similarly sense-rattling Vertigo). The music is a good place to start when dealing with The Color Purple’s central, ultimately successful, contradiction: that it’s an extroverted film about a cripplingly introverted character. One could argue that Spielberg uses Quincy Jones’s effusions to speak for Celie, a woman often too timid to assert her own voice.

Written as a series of letters—most addressed by Celie to God, and in the book’s second half, also addressed to Celie by her long-lost sister, Nettie, living as a missionary in Africa—the book is intended as subjective, narrated largely in a poor, African-American Southern dialect, which one would assume lends it a lived-in quality untranslatable to the more objective, third-person vernacular of cinema. Walker’s choice has its limitations: Celie’s alleged inarticulation often gives way to the honeyed, metaphor-laden notes of the author, and entire chapters offer lucid detail about events that Celie could never have been privy to (including subplots involving Harpo’s second wife, Squeak, a character largely left on the cutting-room floor in the film, despite being played by third-billed Rae Dawn Chong). If Walker thus feigns complete subjectivity, Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes make only the faintest stab—a brief voiceover at the beginning establishes thirteen-year-old Celie’s thoughts and musings as the driving engine of the story, even prefacing her narration with “Dear God…” Celie’s voiceover returns at different intervals throughout, often accompanied by Jones’s score, the two working in tandem to reflect a rich interior world.

In sound—in voice, in score, in song—The Color Purple has an undeniable majesty, as it does in image. Allen Daviau’s cinematography favors striking empathetic close-ups and Fordian low angles, as it toggles between shades of grim charcoal blue and warm golden sunlight. Many felt a certain grittiness was more appropriate to Walker’s source material. This is, after all, a story following the life of a poor black woman growing up in the early twentieth-century South who is raped by her father, whose babies and beloved sister are taken from her, and who marries an abusive man before finding sexual and emotional solace in the arms of another woman. To their credit, though they use different means to do so, both the book and the film manage to avoid any luridness in depicting these events.

The first audible line of dialogue in the film is an insult lobbed at thirteen-year-old Celie by her brutish father. He has interrupted Celie’s joyous frolicking with her beloved Nettie, which opens the film in a sun-dappled, carefree ecstasy, to cruelly tell her, “You got the ugliest smile this side of creation.” After hearing this, she covers her mouth in shame. Her father’s taunt, and this narrative motif that it sets in motion (of Celie shielding the world from her allegedly hideous smile), are absent from Walker’s novel; rather it’s a device created by Meyjes that makes a memorable visual shortcut for Celie’s self-hatred. It also affirms Spielberg’s interpretation of The Color Purple as an “ugly duckling story,” which he called it in a 1985 television interview, as well as “humanist” rather than specifically black. Spielberg, claiming to have strongly identified with Celie, is clearly more interested in her as an all-purpose outcast rather than a socio-historically specific figure, i.e., an emblem of African-American life in post-Reconstruction South. Though Spielberg’s film provides contextualizing dates throughout (unlike the novel), taking us from 1909 to 1949, it never feels situated in a definitive time and place, and thus Celie exists somewhat outside of history. This is perhaps the sharpest divide between Spielberg’s and Walker’s vision: they both want us to closely identify with her as a protagonist, yet Spielberg, in his pursuit of universality, decentralizes her otherness, while Walker heightens her status as other. Celie’s lack of self-worth, her refusal to let the world see her “ugly” smile, is here the beginning of a fairy tale, a problem to be overcome.

When Celie finally does smile, her triumph coincides with one of the film’s most contentious aspects: this wicked spell cast on Celie is only broken years later when Celie’s husband’s mistress, the juke-joint star Shug Avery (portrayed here by Margaret Avery as a proto Billie Holiday), forcibly removes Celie’s hands from her mouth in an effort to help her overcome her shame. The intimacy that this affords leads the characters to their first sexual encounter, portrayed as a series of chaste, motherly kisses and hand-holding that nevertheless unmistakably imply an erotic homosexuality, emphasized and curtailed by the well-trod cinematic grammar of the discreet pan over to the window and the tinkling of wind chimes. The reason for such conspicuous elision is timidity, short and simple. In a 2011 interview in Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg admitted as much, even articulating a modicum of regret on the subject: “I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss.” Retrospective consideration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s inability to engage at all with the book’s lesbian encounters (more matter-of-factly narrated than eroticized) speaks as much to the time as to the director’s conservatism.

What’s far more galling than the fact that Spielberg rejects the overt sexuality present in Walker’s novel (after all, what would one expect from a piece of major studio awards bait in 1985?) is that the film steers clear of Celie and Shug’s eventual romantic cohabitation in the novel’s final quarter. After a rousing crowd-pleaser of a scene (truncated from Walker’s version, but faithful) in which Celie publicly denounces Mister at the dinner table and bravely informs him that she’ll be leaving home to live with Shug in Memphis, we get barely a hint of what her new life consists of, and how Shug fits into it; we’re just given some minor details about Celie opening up a pants shop (this is seemingly arbitrary, but Celie’s proficiency at sewing trousers is more clearly threaded through the book). Celie’s ultimate acceptance of her true self—“I may be poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here!” she exclaims at her most outspoken moment—naturally doesn’t include a note about sexuality, so her sense of becoming feels somewhat half-realized.

Spielberg’s unwillingness to fully represent the physical or psychological realities of Celie’s same-sex attraction reaffirms her status in the film as an innocent, the preferred Spielbergian protagonist from E.T./Elliott to rebellious slave Cinque in Amistad to David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. According to Spielberg, when he voiced his concerns to Quincy Jones about whether he was the right person for the material on account of being male and white, Jones responded, “You didn’t have to come from Mars to do E.T., did you?” It’s a revealing statement, for better and for worse, and the double-edged sword of Spielberg’s humanism, which endeavors to see a wide-eyed benevolence in all creatures great and small, black and white, human, alien or robot, but at times takes away their individuality. The end result is nevertheless always a remarkable empathy—coupled with the occasional reduction of human experience to a constant childlike awe, whether it’s Cinque or The Terminal’s Eastern European immigrant Viktor Navorski, both tenderhearted fishes-out-of-water whose lack of communication skills are viewed through a prism of preciousness. Despite Jones’s quote, which implicitly, inadvertently equates the African-American experience with that of extraterrestrials, Celie is not performed or directed with an ounce of condescension. Goldberg, in her first movie role, is astonishing, altering her bearing and gait so thoroughly that she’s borderline unrecognizable; the comedian’s well-known outward spontaneity replaced by an introversion that makes it look like her body is swallowing itself. Though Walker’s book provides a blueprint for how to play Celie, Goldberg’s cinematic interpretation of the character is all her own. Like the movie itself, she makes something new and extraordinary from the page.

As an adaptation of a book, The Color Purple cannot compare to its source material, nor should it have to; as a movie unto itself, it’s remarkably expansive, and offers textures, feelings, and experiences that are unique to the cinema, and especially to the kind of American studio filmmaking that the director prizes above all. According to Spielberg, he used Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives as his main sources of inspiration, and the purity of purpose (if not the clarity of theme) that marked those films courses through The Color Purple. That Spielberg regarded the film as in line with a certain strain of social realism is also reflected in his statement that he always saw Walker’s book as “Dickensian,” prompting a narrative motif that is strictly his creation: when Nettie teaches Celie to read it’s by way of a tattered copy of Oliver Twist. Like Dickens’s orphan, Celie is destined to rise above abuse and neglect, and to ultimately come into an inheritance. Seen through this prism, the ultimate elation of Spielberg’s The Color Purple makes perfect sense, and indeed the final scenes are as heart-in-the-throat triumphant as any Capra climax, allowing Celie a catharsis so extreme and earned that it can only come across as an act of love on the part of the filmmaker.

So if he saw The Color Purple as a universal, Dickensian tale, can we say that Spielberg made a film about race at all? Unlike his later, more specific work about African-American history, Amistad, The Color Purple isn’t intended as an “issue” picture. Yet its implications—as a story of a struggle for dignity—are unavoidable, and its refusal to underline its characters’ social subjugation, while not shying away from it, is commendable. To fully appreciate it, a certain level of knowledge regarding the sociopolitical climate of the time portrayed is essential. The legacy of slavery naturally hangs over the film, echoed in Mister’s plantation-like property, which marks him as relatively well-off for a black man at the turn of the century. The characters rarely interact with the white population, and when they do, it’s necessarily fraught, either violently so (especially for poor Sophia, who is called a “fat nigger” before being struck with the blunt end of a pistol for refusing to become the mayor’s wife’s maid) or with intimations of power plays (a store-owner’s condescending attitude to young Celie; Mister’s overly ingratiating tone with the mailman). The portrayal of racism is therefore casual, and all the more effective and upsetting for it. Of course, Spielberg the showman sometimes wins the battle with Spielberg the do-gooder—the desperate entertainer is always present, resulting in some tonally screwy scenes such as a 1941-esque bar fight that has the likely inadvertent effect of temporarily turning Sophia, Harpo, Squeak, and others into brawling, buffoonish caricatures.

Perhaps, at age thirty-seven, Spielberg bit off more than he could chew with The Color Purple—not because the text is so rich, or because the result isn’t extraordinary in its own way, but because each of its key words (feminist, black, lesbian) is enough to constitute an ideological minefield on its own. That the resulting film seems to genuinely feel so deeply is all the more remarkable when one considers that it’s the product of a white male dominated Hollywood superstructure. Then if The Color Purple, finally, is everything it sets out to be—profoundly moving; brilliantly performed, lit, and edited; glowingly scored—can we only appreciate it as the best of what the system can produce? Is it possible to regard The Color Purple as a serious auteurist statement? Or is Alice Walker’s vision so strong that Spielberg couldn’t manage to completely wrestle it away from her in the end? Or perhaps a performer as in the moment as Whoopi Goldberg was able to make it her own. Or maybe the disparate pieces that make up a movie as problematically, poignantly patchwork as The Color Purple are, after all, the movie itself. And maybe we can trust our tears.