THE 28: #26, THE COLOR PURPLE
Whoopie Goldberg: Celie
Danny Glover: Mister
Margaret Avery: Shug
Oprah Winfrey: Sofia
Willard E. Pugh: Harpo
Screenplay by Menno Meyjes (based on the novel by Alice Walker)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Few movies have moved my soul and rekindled my belief in the strength of the human spirit than THE COLOR PURPLE. This is not a perfect film, but it has tremendous heart and is anchored by one of the finest performances I've ever seen in Whoopie Goldberg's portrayal of Celie Johnson. That THE COLOR PURPLE was nominated for 11 Oscars and won zero remains one of the great head-scratchers.
The picture takes place in the early years of the 20th century and opens with teenage Celie running through a field of purple flowers and we see she is pregnant, the result of a rape at the hands of her father. When the baby is born, the man takes Celia's baby away from her. We learn this is the second time this has happened. This is our introduction into the world of Celie Johnson. She is sent off to marry a man named Albert, but she only calls him Mister. He is outwardly charming, but takes no issue with abusing Celie, especially emotionally. The world is cruel to Celie and she is timid and withdrawn in response.
Enter Shug, a boozed-up lounge singer that Mister has loved a long time. Mister brings Shug into his home and forces Celie to attend to her every need. Shug's first words to Celie are "you ugly as sin." From there, however, Shug forms a bond with Celie and helps her discover her beauty, both inside and out. A moment occurs where Shug gets Celie to smile and it is luminous. This leads to a couple of tentative kisses and Celie learns the value of intimacy. Sex is not something a man forces you to do because you're married to him. It is an act of love, of connection. This is the moment on which the entire movie hinges, because it starts Shug's redemption and Celie's discovery of self. Celie softens Shug and gives her a reason to love.
Another important part of the story is a series of letters, which are the framework of Alice Walker's original novel. These letters are kept hidden from Celie by Mister, who is a man of deep cruelty and ignorance. Celie only obeys him out of fear. Celie studies the people around her. She is in awe of a woman named Sofia, a force of nature married to Harpo, one of Mister's sons who runs a juke joint where Shug sings. Sofia is the antithesis of Celie. Brash, vocal, opinionated, and unwilling to yield to Harpo's attempts to control her the way Mister controls Celie.
THE COLOR PURPLE was directed by Steven Spielberg and I remember a bit of backlash when it was announced he was taking the helm. How was the guy who basically invented the summer blockbuster going to handle the complexities of Alice Walker's sprawling novel? How can this white man effectively convey the story of an African-American woman? Spielberg does soften the tone of Walker's source material and the sexual relationship between Celie and Shug is muted compared to the more explicit presentation in the novel. He also mishandles a key scene of Sofia's. After enduring a great humiliation, she has gone to work for as a maid to the town's white mayor and his wife. They are racist and treat Sofia with much disdain. The wife attempts to provide Sofia with a gift for Christmas by allowing Sofia to be with her children on that day. The wife insists on driving her there. Her driving is comically inept and when she arrives, she feels threatened by the black men there who only wish to help her with her car. The focus becomes on the mayor's wife and her reactions and the whole thing is played as almost slapstick. This was Sofia's moment and Spielberg should've let her have it. We missed a big payoff.
Still, THE COLOR PURPLE is a magnificent work about the triumph of the human will. I don't know what it's like to be a black woman in the early 20th century, but the marvel of THE COLOR PURPLE is the way it allows us to identify with Celie's story and the credit for that lies almost exclusively with Whoopie Goldberg's transcendent performance. And, if you can't get through the film's final scene without being deeply moved, then I don't know how to help you.