Was Steven Spielberg the right person to shoot the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s powerful novel? He was an interesting choice for the project, and it definitely wasn’t the dramatic material that he was associated with in the 80s, having delivered a number of blockbusters at that point.
And while there were a number of changes from book to screen, something that can be argued in all film adaptations, Spielberg delivers a powerful film on cycles of abuse, life, sisters, family, and love.
Spielberg has always been aware of how to use the film’s frame. His storytelling ability is on full display here as we are invited into the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in the American south in the early parts of the 20th century.
Abused by all the men in her life, from her father (Leonard Jackson) to her husband, whom she refers to only as Mister (Danny Glover) the film puts the viewer right in the midst of what it means to be Black. And while the film is set in the 20s and 30s, it’s still incredibly relevant and powerful.
Celie struggles to find herself, finding a connection with Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) a proud, vivacious singer who can’t reconcile with her preacher father (John Patton Jr.), and a longing to find her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia) who was forced out of her life after she rejected Mister’s advances, and the children forced upon her by her own father.
Celie’s life intersects with others including Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) and each moment, each frame is filled with experience, power, and emotion letting us ride the lows and highs of self-discovery, family, and life.
Quincy Jones comes aboard as the film’s composer and producer, and Spielberg’s ability to deliver powerful moments is on full display. This is his first film since Sugarland Express that eschews big blockbuster ideas, there are no chase sequences, no big special effects set pieces. Spielberg lets the powerful story and its amazing characters do the work.
He lets the characters and the atmosphere permeate the screen and Goldberg is nothing short of stunning. The entire cast is pitch-perfect and The Color Purple is a powerful watch, watching this one for the first time in years, I was amazed and delighted with how caught up I got in performances and events and found myself with happy tears by the film’s end.
The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun were the first films of Spielberg’s that I saw that hinted that he didn’t just deliver special effects extravaganzas. I hadn’t seen Sugarland Express at that time, and while as a teen I was more interested in action and space movies, there was something about both of these films that spoke to me and hinted that film could do more than just entertain.
It’s a gorgeous film.