Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Haven't I Seen That? - THE COLOR PURPLE

Welcome to a new installment of WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THAT?, where we talk about a must-see or iconic movie that we have never seen ... until now. This week we take a look at Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nom opus, THE COLOR PURPLE.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Yes, it's true: until not three hours ago, I had never seen Spielberg's The Color Purple. The prevailing attitudes of the day may argue otherwise, but I maintain the reason for this regrettable dereliction was a simple matter of taste. Nothing loses my interest in a movie faster than hearing it was nominated for an Oscar.

Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple follows a woman named Celie (Whoopi Goldberg in her debut role) over the course of more than four decades, from girlhood into middle age. These years are primarily miserable ones for our protagonist. As a girl, Celie is raped repeatedly by her father, bearing two children by him who he gives away after they are born. From there she is given in marriage to a man who, for years, Celie will only know as "Mister", though she'll later learn his first name is Albert (Danny Glover). Albert is no better, treating her like a slave during the day and a pleasure girl at night. These early influences cause Celie to see herself as someone only worthy of punishment, but over the course of the film she will learn how wrong this view is, until finally she is able to claim the freedom of self-worth.

Steven Spielberg calls The Color Purple his first "serious" movie, as before this he was primarily known for summer movie hits like Jaws, ET, 1941, and the first two Indiana Jones movies. Glimpses of Spielberg's future greatness can be had here. Purple is a very introspective movie. As Celie makes her way through the struggles and occasional joys of her life, we spend most of the film seeing the world through her eyes, listening to her internal monologue as she ruminates on the people around her. In this way we walk with her through her life, hearing what she's thinking and feeling as she tells God about the things that happen to her each day.

And as far as that's concerned, the device works for telling Celie's story. Unfortunately, it works at the exclusion of the other characters, whose own subplots begin as little more than filler material and then peter out until those characters are just faces in a crowd. Even important figures in Celie's life, like the nightclub singer Shug Avery, are moved around almost aimlessly. Characters appear, interact with Celie and Albert for a while, then announce they're leaving with no reason given. They may turn up again later, but with few exceptions their motivations remain largely unexplored, or unexplained. The result is that, even though these characters are obviously on journeys of their own (no one ends the movie as they were at the start) they still come off as one-dimensional, playing their respective representations with no deviation. Albert is always a loathsome creature of repression and brutality. Shug Avery is always a symbol of freedom. Celie's sister Nettie is always the face the film puts on the concept of unconditional love. Even when moments arise that attempt to put some dimensionality on these characters, their basic definitions quickly return to the fore. These are not people, they are ideas, and they are all diminished for it.

Both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey make their feature film debuts here, with Winfrey appearing as Sophie, who enter's Celie's story as the first wife of Albert's son Harpo. While Whoopie gives that rare debut performance that would define her entire career, Oprah seems to fall right into the groove she would revisit in later roles. I was suprised how similar her performance in this movie was to her work as Gloria Gaines in The Butler almost three decades later, though it has to be said that I can't see Gloria Gaines knocking a man to the ground for slapping her.

Because its portrayals of both the treatment of women and the behavior of whites play so much into today's political narrative, The Color Purple can come off as activist propaganda. Thankfully there is more to take from this movie than guilt, with characters that manage to be likeable even without the depth that more narrative presence would have provided. I just wish the movie didn't feel so heavy handed and primary. With a little of the subtlety and depth that Spielberg would show in later movies like Schindler's List, this movie could have been a true classic, instead of a game first effort.

Robert's Score: 5/10

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