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You better not tell nobody but God.

The Color Purple
(1985)

(SPOILERS) In which the Berg attempts to prove he’s a grownup. In a sense, this is the equivalent of the fourteen-year-old taking up smoking cigarettes and drinking beer to impress the older kids. The New Republic reports the view expressed by Salamishah Tillet in In Search of The Color Purple that the protests and criticisms of the film furthering “an image of Black men as violent and sexually aggressive” ultimately scuppered its chances at the Oscars, where it received eleven nominations but won not a single statuette. That may well have been a factor, the Academy being nothing if not squeamishly sensitive to criticism, but I tend to the view it was Spielberg’s shamelessness in his bid to hang with the big boys that elicited the snub. It was only when he milked their favourite subject (Holocaust porn) that he became the toast of Tinseltown.

And, of course, he reportedly proved his juvenile outlook, coming on the petulant child about his always-the-bridesmaid status with the Academy (until his big win). After all, The Color Purple represented the filmmaker’s fourth Best Picture nominee and fourth nod for Best Director. How could they continually fail to recognise his true worth? He’d show them! So The Color Purple, followed by Empire of the Sun (perhaps the best of his “serious” fare) found him shifting gears, and with it the decline in the qualities – immaculate showmanship – that made his early movies such marvels. You can see his subsequent half-heartedness towards his strongest suit in the action in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and then the overblown mess of Hook, but perhaps his increasing disenchantment with “mere” populist entertainment was even setting in with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; after all, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but George Lucas in charge of the quality control that okayed all that very obvious miniature work.

Quincy Jones approached Spielberg to direct, so one might argue the onus is off the director’s shoulders as regards punching above his weight, but he did nevertheless accept the gig once Jones had soothed his “not worthy” worries. Jones would go on to provide the quite horrid, sickly score, one that reveals the most lachrymose of John Williams tendencies packed into one vomitous sandwich. Director Steven and producer/musician Quincy reportedly clashed during the making. They also, of course, each have some scurrilous rumoured histories. Some of Jones’ have been addressed by the man himself, while the Beard vacating Indy 5 was, some quarters suggested, an advanced warning of a brewing scandal, one that never materialised (others have claimed Kathleen Kennedy’s Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Woke demands had him heading for the door).

It goes without saying that Steven wouldn’t get away with directing The Color Purple today (and barely did then; just ask Spike Lee). You only have to look at the kind of controversy Green Book stirred – and which the Academy, this time, knees jerking spasmodically, stood firm against, although they’ve been running scared ever since – to test the temperature of that politically fraught room. The more pressing question, though, beyond his race, is whether he had the temperament, attitude and maturity to do Alice Walker’s lauded (Pulitzer Prize-winning) 1982 novel justice. Walker herself has become a target of outrage culture for daring to admire a David Icke book (The New Republic, in line with mainstream media generally, mischaracterises his views, but what’s new; it’s hardly likely to suggest he’s a disinfo agent). The case for antisemitism on Walker’s part is a thin one, but that’s exactly the way the MSM likes its targets.

Walker was initially horrified by the adaptation, but now claims to like it very much… Okay. I can see why one might like something that softens and subdues everything you intended to say with a text. Really, though, this comes back to the age-old fidelity to the source material argument, and the bogus idea that the two should equate. In some respects, even the idea that one should uphold the essence of the original is wrong headed. Obviously, the further one deviates from the essence, the less likely one is to satisfy anyone, but the key, surely, is: is it a good movie?

And I don’t think The Color Purple ever finds its feet. It’s Spielberg applying his undoubted craft to subject matter entirely foreign to his sensibilities. He’s a square lens focussing on a round hole, even when he’s doing his darndest to sheer off the edges. Even when it is at pains to be, The Color Purple is a far from subtle film, because Spielberg isn’t a subtle director. He’s always thinking about the frame, first and foremost. He’s also going for that classical moment. The picture is a smorgasbord of silhouetted characters, so meaningful in tableau, they become redundant. Against hanging sheets or doorways or traumas. He’s calling on his encyclopaedic knowledge of film lore to make a modern movie. Which works like gangbusters when it’s a retro-modern piece (Raiders of the Lost Ark) or used in service of something essential new (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). But with a traditional melodrama (or drama), he succeeds mainly in calling attention to the form.

Ironically, one of the areas the Berg receives the most brick bats for, and which he himself willingly fesses up to, that lands better than it probably should, is the lesbian subtext. Sure, if you’re focussed on staying true to the novel, his kid gloves aren’t going to wash. But this is PG-13 romance, and perhaps because he’s summoning the mores and restrictive codes of ’40s and ’50s movies as his model, suggest don’t show – or perhaps simply because he’s embarrassed – it’s surprisingly full of restrained feeling and suggestive empathy; Miss Celie’s Blues is a genuinely terrific, touching sequence, the forwardness of Shug (Margaret Avery) contrasting with the bashfulness of Celie (Whoopi). Likewise, the meaningful moments that pass between them during the bathing scene are surprisingly both intimate and affecting.

Generally, though, this is a movie where the successes come in spite of, rather than due to, the director, and most often it’s the cast who deserve the credit. There are some very good performances. Goldberg’s fine (although perhaps less so than Desreta Jackson in the early scenes), Oprah Winfrey, whatever one ma say about her subsequent globalist machinations, is commanding and powerful in presence and fists (although her later makeup appears to be based on Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Danny Glover commendably tackles an essentially irredeemable character. The likes of Larry Fishface, Rae Dawn Chong (who had less than great things to say about Oprah, so she was ahead of the game there) and Willard Pugh (who would invade Robocop 2 with some horrendous comedy mugging) are serviceable in under-utilised roles.

But again, one can’t escape the director. Spielberg’s constantly looking for the movie moment. Never forget that this is a guy twisted enough to make fake-out gas chamber suspense from a basic shower in Schindler’s List. And receive applause for it. There’s a lurking sense throughout The Color Purple that he’s always after the moment where he can take his foot off the adult peddle and get back to something less fraught. Hence the comedy bits, complete with wa-wa music cues. The cooking larks with inept Mister trying to impress Shug. You can feel his relief when he has the opportunity to deliver a slapstick bar fight. All it needs is Harrison Ford entering in a fedora. The First Noel is Christmas copiousness.

There’s a comedy crazy white person (Dana Ivey, very good) who chillingly she shows her true motives; Spielberg prefers his unadulterated bastards, so much easier for Raiders of the Lost Ark cartoonish menace (he says he swore of slapstick Nazis, but he still loves them really). A letter from Africa – behold the red skies! Giraffes! Sunsets! Sauce pans medley into xylophones: all of it very arranged, and you notice it in bad way because this isn’t the film for such ostentatious artifice.

The second time we see Celie shaving Mister, Spielberg dives into an absurd suspense sequence – you half expect a velociraptor to show up, lunging somewhere between Africa and America. There’s a flying poster signalling a transition like this is the antecedent to Forrest Gump and American Beauty: fairy-tale fantasy imagery. The Celie table scene is curdlingly triumphant, such that it’s small comfort to learn it was ad-libbed (it feels like an entirely false note, almost even a betrayal of Celie’s character). Towards the end, there’s an extended, rambunctious scene with a gospel choir invading a church, and you’re struck by the notion John Landis might be taking a turn in the director’s chair. Except you know it couldn’t be so, not after Twilight Zone: The Movie. As for the “all right in the end-ing”… Well, at least it wasn’t incest, right? And there’s a golden goose? Glory be. Quincy and Steven’s approach to child abuse and incest appears based on the idea that one only needs to see it through stoically in order to have a great life afterwards.

There’s a problem with the Berg films that aren’t intentionally facile and smacking of hyperbole, in that you notice how facile and smacking of hyperbole they are. Every appalling impulse he has about “adult” filmmaking starts here and goes on and on, including the interminable finales of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Pauline Kael described The Color Purple as “Song of the South remade by Visconti” which is absolutely hilarious (and we must remember, Kael was largely on the director’s team with his early movies). Much too much of it feels like an adaptation rather than a film, one moving studiously from one chapter to the next, and then to the next, without any real vision of the whole, of the movie itself.

It’s notable that Spielberg went from making an eccentrically retrograde, racist movie to one sensitively denouncing the same. And there’s no real switch in approach involved; The Color Purple is more about his journey to become a respectable director than about the material itself. I’ll readily admit I was quite taken with The Color Purple the first time I saw it. It seemed like a director in command of all forms of genre and storytelling. But I was young and foolish back then, as was the director, albeit he had more than a quarter of a century on me. In particular, I found the indulgently treacly last half hour extremely hard work this time; it unravels wretchedly as Celie, like Job (I dunno, maybe?) is rewarded for all the wretchedness that has befallen her.

So yeah, The Color Purple makes slick entertainment from trauma porn. In that sense, Spielberg was something of a trailblazer. Suffering is money. It’s a shameless status grab too on his part, and because he’s a proficient filmmaker, it undoubtedly holds up on one level. On another, it leaves you rather unmoved. What was his point again? What was his point with Munich? Did he have one, other than regurgitated hearsay and learned language? Like Patrick Bateman trying to pass for a normie? Still, it paid off eventually.


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