It may be hard to remember now what a big deal The Color Purple was in 1985. Though the film's status as a major work of the 1980s is pretty solid, it's easy to forget its uniqueness and ubiquity on first release. Because when weren't Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey stars? And does anyone blink any longer when Steven Spielberg makes one of his "serious" films?
When The Color Purple was released, it was kind of a bizarre happening. A very white director known primarily for his impressively crafted genre entertainments was helming the adaptation of a leading work of African American literature. Spielberg's last two films had been been the fantastical E.T. and the ludicrous Temple of Doom, yet Alice Walker's novel seemed like the strangest territory the director could have stepped into. One could argue that this was when the 'berg proved the true strength of his artistic armor. The Color Purple worked then and it holds up to this day, though that is as much a triumph of the material as it is for any one of the many talented people involved.
The Color Purple starts in the early part of the 20th Century and tracks the lives of a group of African American's in a small Southern town into the late 1930s. Whoopi Goldberg stars as Celie, a young girl who is sexually abused by her father, and then passed on to be married to a man who beats her and imprisons her in a life of servitude. This terrible husband is Mister, played with tightly controlled malice by Danny Glover. Though Mister originally wanted Celie's prettier sister Nettie (Akosua Busia), he settles for the older girl, and eventually separates the siblings after Nettie fends off his advances. Mister is a widower with several kids, and he expects Celie, who is just a child herself, to raise them.
As the years pass, people move in and out of Celie's sheltered life. Mister's oldest son, Harpo (Willard Pugh), marries the headstrong Sophia (Oprah Winfrey), and when he tries to run his household the same way as his father, she leaves him. Likewise, Mister and Celie get regular visits from jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), a woman that Mister has been obsessed with for years. She eventually becomes Celie's only ally, helping her find the love and courage to finally stand-up for herself.
The Color Purple is something of a family epic, telling a larger story in the vein of the old Russian masters or even John Steinbeck. Each character is on a journey, and Celie serves as a central point that all of their individual stories run through. Her own journey is to go from observer to active participant, and Goldberg delivers an intuitive, emotional performance, showing the metamorphosis both physically and emotionally. Her part is the most nuanced, others tend to play to type. Winfrey is good, for instance, but Sophia really only has two modes: determined and defeated. Margaret Avery manages to find a few different shades to Shug, even if the script draws her in fairly even strokes. The actress drapes extra layers of meaning over the material simply by never forgetting that there is supposed to be more than what we see on the surface. Thus, it makes sense when she reveals herself to be more than a beautiful party girl.
If there is a downfall to The Color Purple it's that Celie's transformation doesn't have the same gradual shift. Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes (The Siege) spend so much time on the pain, when the happiness eventually does come, it feels forced. The final half hour of the movie runs by slowly, and it feels like the material that falls on that side of the narrative fulcrum is being rushed to fit. It's surprising, because you'd think that would be the stuff Spielberg would have the best handle on, but to this day, he struggles to move from darker drama to the expected happy endings (see, for instance, War of the Worlds). The transition should have been easy, since in the meatier first two hours, part of why The Color Purple is so effective is because the director brings a touch of the fairy tale to the movie. Director of photography Allen Daviau (Bugsy) shoots the action against dreamy backdrops, creating a majestic world all around the squalor and the heartache that the characters confine themselves to. In Spielberg's next movie, Empire of the Sun, he has a famous shot where the displaced are flanked by a giant advertisement for Gone With the Wind, but it's in The Color Purple that he uses all the lessons he gleaned from Golden Age Hollywood. There is a timelessness to the storytelling, right down to the occasional eruptions of slapstick.
It's the assured construction that ultimately keeps all the fine performances in The Color Purple from disappearing into a hokey morass, and also why, despite the movie's flaws, it still manages to be effective and emotionally satisfying. Though the movie might have been better for stopping when Celie finally walks out on Mister, it wouldn't be quite as fulfilling without the melodramatic finale. Spielberg is an old softie, and he knows how to hit those same weepy buttons in moviegoers. I'll admit, I was big pile of mush when the credits rolled. The Color Purple had touched me in the right way. It's easy to argue technique, but it's a lot harder to rationalize away true feeling. It's kind of Spielberg's stock in trade: getting right to the heart of it, whatever it takes. It's why The Color Purple worked in 1985, and why it's still well worth watching three decades later.
The Blu-Ray edition The Color Purple is a lovely piece of work. The 1080p high definition widescreen image (1.85:1) is gorgeous. The colors are vivid, and the resolution pitch perfect, be it the fine details of skin tones or the sweeping vistas of the evening sky. With only minimal, if any, enhancement, the overall image has a very subtle grain and refined detail that lets every corner of the frame be seen, no matter how far back in the depth of field.
The original soundtrack has been mixed in DTS Master Audio 5.1, and it sounds amazing. The audio for The Color Purple has a lot going on, with nearly omnipresent music by Quincy Jones and lots of atmospheric noise. There is rarely a moment of genuine quiet, there is usually some kind of activity on the farm, even if it's just crickets in the distance. The audio mix fills all the speakers, moving around as necessary and creating a truly immersive soundscape.
There are three alternative language tracks: a French 2.0 mix, and two Spanish options--Castilian in stereo and Latin in mono. There are also French and Spanish subtitles, and English Closed Captioning.
For the most part, the Blu-Ray for The Color Purple is identical to the two-disc Warner Bros. Special Edition released nearly 8 years ago to the day. All of the extras are ported over and there are no new on-disc supplements. This means we have the same behind-the-scenes and cast galleries, theatrical trailer, and the four-part documentary, which itself clocks in at nearly 90 minutes. These featurettes cover the source material and adaptation process ("Conversations with the Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen"), the stars of the movie ("A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple"), the usual behind-the-scenes overview ("Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple"), and a short piece on the musical numbers.
Newly created for this Blu-Ray upgrade is the packaging. The Color Purple comes in a hardback book with 40 pages of material inside. The book features photos, liner notes looking back at the success of the movie, biographies of Spielberg and his cast, trivia, and some info on Walker's novel.
The Color Purple still stands tall as one of the finest works of Steven Spielberg's non-genre filmography. A family story told as a classic Hollywood epic, this adaptation of Alice Walker's novel was a perfect storm of the right people coming together at the right time. With star-making performances by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, and supported by a memorable visual style, The Color Purple packs an emotional dramatic punch. Yes, the movie has its flaws, but they are engulfed by the fine craftsmanship, and the end result is an emotionally powerful movie that stands the test of time. The new Blu-Ray doesn't add much to the old double-DVD version in terms of extras, but the picture and sound quality have been updated to fit the current technology. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.