It all seems so silly now. On the other hand, the controversy today would be even riper, more ripped from the PC-protracted headlines in 2011. At the time, Steven Spielberg didn't have the Oscar caliber qualities he's since earned with efforts like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He was a popcorn moviemaker, and taking on the frank feminist mantras within Alice Walker's complex look at the turn of the 20th century African American experience seemed like a senseless act of Hollywood egoism. Of course, in the new millennium, he would never be allowed to touch such material. Even with his seriousness now fully informed (and Oscar-worthy), Spielberg's concentration on visuals and flash still send shivers down literary purists backs - let along members of the pro minority moviemaker community. The eventual results have, indeed, been argued over. Many remain angry by the avoidance of the novel's lesbian subtexts. Others just complain that Spielberg, as the "Man", whitewashed the cultural wonders within Walker's work. Thirty years have changed little about the film or the arguments. The new Blu-ray edition of The Color Purple isn't likely to alter that, either.
After being raped by her father and bearing his two bastard children (almost immediately given up for adoption), a teenage Celie is promised to Mister, a local sharecropper who actually fancies the child's prettier sister, Nettie. As a widower with a wandering eye and a bunch of kids to care for, the brutish man agrees to take the shy, homely girl. Under Mister, Celie's life is horrific. She is beaten and berated, isolated from her family and forced to slave for the unruly, uncaring clan. Mister even drives away her beloved sister, Nettie almost incapable of keeping the man's ill intentions at bay. As she ages, Celie seems destined to be persecuted her entire life. It's not long, however, before she meets two other women who will help her discover her inner self and strength. They include Sophia, the blustery, no bullspit wife of Mister's misguided son Harpo and boozy jazz singer Shug Avery, a casual "acquaintance" of her long smitten spouse. By example and instruction, circumstance and causality, they help this fragile flower blossom and grow - eventually strong enough to stand on her own two feet.
The Color Purple is a complicated film to write about. There are so many issues surrounding the film that to mention them tends to minimize the impact of what's on screen. You can yelp about Spielberg all your want, complain about the casting (and, in concert, the characterization), and imagine a more enlightened adaptation where issues of sexuality and gender abuse are not candy-coated by a Caucasian populist trying to make a more meaningful movie name for himself. The only problem is, Spielberg made an amazing film out of Walker's tale. Is it perfect? Hardly. Does it require a certain suspension of aesthetic belief? Absolutely. Could someone more closely connected to the culture have made a better movie? Maybe, though Tyler Perry's recent take on For Colored Girls might sway you one way or the other. In reality, none of the brouhaha fostered then or now makes a damn bit of difference. Allowed to take on the material, Spielberg acquits himself in a way that's both indicative of why he's one of the artform's greats, as well as any limitations his participation might have/eventually did bring.
Look at Oprah Winfrey's pet project as a more recent metaphoric example. Oscar winner Jonathan Demme was given the reigns of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's amazing Beloved and turned in a solid, serious variation. Fans could see the substance within the story, if not always the glorious grace notes. But any failings film-wise are not really a question of race but of source realities. Anyone who has read Morrison's moving tome knows that there are stunning passages of literate poetry meant to provide an ambient sense of setting to an otherwise static printed page paradigm. The masterful matching of words invokes feelings and psychological sentiments, things mere narrative can't achieve on its own. So how, exactly, do you put this up on the big screen? How do you translate taste into pictures, or sound into color? It's the same with Walker's Purple. As a series of letters to God, the book fails to lend itself easily to a three act storyline. Even with the internal dialogues and plotting, we are still experiencing the world from a specific, insular point of view. So approach is everything. It was for Demme. It was for Spielberg as well.
In truth, The Color Purple is an exquisite example of something based on much harsher, harder realities. There is a tendency to paint sunshine all over the pain, to 'Song' this version of the South with the same kind of wide-smile weariness that many have complained of before. Certain characters appear sketched from a simplistic pad - Harpo's tendency toward inappropriate construction pratfalls, Ms. Squeak's...'squeak'. But this appears to be a preplanned step in moderating the more mean-spirited stuff to come. Celie is shocking complicated, more layered than even a brilliant Whoopi Goldberg can truly manage. She is matched well by Winfrey, making an acting debut worth nothing (and with her TV show now going permanently bye-bye...). While the men all suffer from the same pig/dog/paternal chauvinism, Mister cuts an equally compelling swath. Sure, he's all stunted brute sadism, but it's abuse founded out of fear and father figures, not a unholy demonic desire to harm. Make no mistake - he's the villain here, and no last act bit of charity can salvage the damage he's done. But unlike the heels harbored in Perry's gospel plays, there's at least some redemptive dimension, no matter how slight.
In the end, the Spielberg take on The Color Purple works because the filmmaker has faith in his abilities to guide and even move/manipulate the audience. Is it right to avoid the entire female circumcision/scarring ritual of Celie's Africanized children? Probably not. Is the rampant racism of the era toned down a touch for an early '80s audience. Yes. Do we mind the sequences where things seem a tad too pat and protective. Absolutely. But then again, it is probably impossible to make a literal version of this material (just ask the current touring production of the Color Purple musical). Alice Walker's book begs to be taken outside the boundaries of what is actually presented, to showcase a unique combination of truth and myth, fable and frightening fact. There's no arguing that there were dozens of minority filmmakers who could have steered the chaos onto the right course. But with Spielberg in the driver's seat, the movie got what it needed most - a highly polished Hollywood profile. It's possible that The Color Purple would have seen the filmic light of day eventually. This way, it became an amiable anomaly, goodness constantly grazing up against and into greatness.
Clearly a cleaned-up catalog transfer, Warners work on The Color Purple update is to be commended. The 1080p AVC encode looks startling at times, the beauty of the Southern setting luminous within the wondrous widescreen setting. Details are, for the most part, sharp and easily experienced, and there are times when the image takes on a near three dimensional quality. Spielberg's epic shots are severed well by this format update, though not every element shines as brightly as others. The period dimensions tend to come off as artificial under the discerning facets of the blu-ray presentation and night scenes expose a small amount of grain that tends to take away from the overall view. Still, this is an excellent looking release.
As insects buzz in the background and the boiling butter of Summer's cauldron melts between the speakers, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix of The Color Purple's blu-ray release does a dynamic job of delivering the aural goods. Quincy Jones provided the music for the film and the remaster does the gorgeous, ethereal score proud. We get various directional and ambient notes, as well as sequences where song and juke joint jive resonant across the channels. The music does manage to wipe away some of the more subtle sonic touches, but overall, the presentation is pristine. The dialogue is easily discernible and the overall soundscape is balanced and polished.
There is a mere 90 minutes of standard definition bonus features offered here, all previously available on the regular DVD release of this title. Still, for what they offer, the lack of an update is understandable. First up is Conversations with Ancestors: The Color Purple From Book to Screen, featuring Walker and Spielberg. It's a fascinating look at how the book was born, as well as how the King of the Blockbuster became its biggest fan and supporter. Then we are treated to A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple, which discusses the process of choosing actors for the film. A basic making-of is next. It's entitled Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple. Finally, there is a look at the musical version of the book, a set of HD galleries, and a collection of trailers.
History has done a couple of compelling things to The Color Purple. When the Oscars came along for the year 1985, the film racked up 11 nominations (Spielberg, who won the Director's Guild Award for his work, was not among the recognized). It failed to win a single award, turning it into a martyr for the misguided way the Academy treats such talents. Such a snub would become the stuff of legend. In addition, the power inherent in both the filmmaking and performances would help deaden the dull ache of an agenda based argument against the movie's many delights. As a result, The Color Purple has gone from one time potential pariah to perennial fave, fortunate to have ancillary factors bolster its bottom line. As for this critic, this has always been a Highly Recommended experience, the cinematic shape of things to come for one of the greatest directors of the post-modern era. Argue his race or his reasoning, but Steven Spielberg did not let Alice Walker's story down. Revisiting it now, it's easy to see why.
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