He's Saint Steven now, but his post-Schindler’s List beatification obscures what an awkward ’80s Spielberg had.
After the double-whammy of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T. in 1981-2, he wouldn’t turn in an unequivocally topnotch piece of work for more than a decade. He’d proved himself a technical master who could please any crowd going – now what?
Wanting to show himself a ‘serious’ filmmaker, and after treading water with Temple Of Doom, Spielberg chose a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Alice Walker to prove he was more than a popcorn accompanist. And boy does The Color Purple feel like the smart kid in class biting off more than he can chew.
Eyebrows were raised when the man best known for giant sharks and homesick aliens took on an exploration of racism, poverty and misogyny in the pre-war American South, and they were partially vindicated by how much Spielberg fumbles the tone of his broadsheet debut.
Whoopi Goldberg is the downtrodden Celie, given away by her abusive father into the arms of the even more abusive Danny Glover, and as we follow her development from near-slave to proud woman we endure with her incest, attempted rape, forced separation from her beloved sister, prejudice and all the other ways it was crap to be poor, black and American in the ’20s.
Problem is, Spielberg hurries over the darkness and emotional depth of the novel to get to near-sitcom scenes of Glover being dopily forgetful, or a preposterous bar room brawl.
At this point in his career, the movie brat in The Beard was happier riffing ’30s serials than looking into the realities of historical suffering.
Likewise, when Goldberg falls for her husband’s live-wire lover, the deeply felt same-sex love of the book is perfunctorily covered, then squeamishly forgotten.
Worst of all, the characterisation is perilously reductive: African-American women are stoic paragons of endurance, while African-American men are women-hating bastards, or feckless caricatures. Nobody’s saying Spielberg is king of the racists, but the clumsiness points to his discomfort with the material.
And yet, and yet... Spielberg’s eye could make a Cillit Bang ad cinematic, and he elicits career-best performances from Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, who destroys all memories of televised confessions as soon as her ass-kicking matriarch strides onto the screen.
And while it’s difficult not to see The Color Purple as Spielberg clearing his throat before a new phase in his career, his ability to deliver a punch-the-air ending is second to none – when the great white wall of Goldberg’s smile is unleashed, it’s impossible not to grin along with her.
Those pearlies dazzle all the more on this Blu-ray restoration, while extras (a handful of solid featurettes) are hold-overs from the 2003 Special Edition.
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