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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Color Purple: SE
The Color Purple: SE
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // February 18, 2003
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted February 17, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Georgia, 1909. Life was easy for no one, but for a young, poor, uneducated black girl it could be terrible indeed. From the moment we meet Celie, she has had the short end of the stick: suffering abuse, bearing the incestuous child of her own father and having it taken away from her, fearing that her beloved sister Nettie would suffer the same fate. The Color Purple takes viewers on a journey through Celie's life, and we see that Celie is a stronger person than perhaps even she knows; her life has the potential for joy as well as pain.

The Color Purple focuses more on character and theme than on plot, and in that vein the story has several powerful elements that it handles well, foremost among which I'd count how it evokes the lifetime of isolation that the characters experience. For Celie and many of the characters, their entire life is dictated by their fathers and their husbands, and in literal terms is bounded by the physical borders of the farm they live on; the farthest from home they ever get is to go to the town, and even so, we see that it's a strange and rather hostile place where familial abuse is replaced by racial prejudice.

Another theme the film handles well is the importance of friendship and love. In Celie's desperate yearning to keep her babies, we can see the impulse that (even in modern times) leads young women in desperate situations to want a child: when she is abused and despised by all around her, a child is someone who would unconditionally need and love her. For Celie, this is not to be, but she does have a loving relationship with her sister Nettie that forms the center of her emotional world. If that is taken from her, what can sustain her? That question forms the central thrust of the film, as we see Celie develop from young girl to young woman to mature adult, still feeling that something important is missing in her life.

Whoopi Goldberg, in her first film appearance, is quite good, turning in a restrained and well-rounded performance as Celie. I really only knew Goldberg's work through a few minor comedies and her guest role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it was nice to see her in a major dramatic role. A number of other well-regarded actors grace The Color Purple as well, including Danny Glover as "Mister," Laurence Fishburne in a small role, and Oprah Winfrey giving a solid supporting performance. 

The Color Purple was nominated for no fewer than eleven Academy Awards, but perhaps rather tellingly, won none. I make that comment because in the end, The Color Purple is an enjoyable and well-crafted film that in my mind never reaches the highest level of accomplishment. It does come close to doing so, and for many viewers it undoubtedly does reach that level; but some weaker areas remain in the film.

Director Steven Spielberg takes a rather sentimental approach to the material as a whole... including the crueler aspects of Celie's life. The earlier scenes, in which she is handed over to "Mister" by her father, are handled fairly well, showing the difficult situation she is in as the unwilling wife of an abusive husband, required to run the household and raise her stepchildren on her own. But soon a lighter note creeps in, and we are shown more and more the brighter side of Celie's life; that's not to say that the film should have painted her life as one of unrelenting gloom, but certainly it doesn't build the kind of emotional foundation that we need to understand her later actions. Many of the incidents are played in a slightly humorous way, as when Celie wordlessly finds each thing her frantic husband is looking for as he gets dressed up for a date with another woman, or when she looks on in amusement as he tries to cook breakfast. While on the one hand this effectively shows her as a woman who has adapted to live her life the best she can under the circumstances, on the other hand it also feels as though Spielberg couldn't quite face the idea of actually showing the cruelty and oppression that Celie lives under for so many years.

In this sense, the film adaptation takes quite a different direction than its source, Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; in the novel, we're not just told about the harsh realities of Celie's life, we're pushed right into them from Celie's perspective. The novel lays bare what the film tries to glide over; its narrative voice is bare and stark, not lush and graceful as the film's cinematography is.

The result is that the concluding events of the film ought to feel like a liberation, but they don't. It's interesting to have followed Celie throughout her life, and the ending does provide a nice closure both in events and theme, but in terms of our emotional engagement with the character, it lacks a certain impact. It doesn't help that the film is also a bit overly long, at more than two and a half hours; it contains some parts that feel like filler, and would have packed a greater punch if it had been tightened up.

The Color Purple is without a doubt a very good film; it falls short of being a great film, though, perhaps sidetracked from its potential for greatness by Spielberg's yearning to show a sentimental view of things rather than a cold and bitter reality. While The Color Purple strives to be a story of triumph over tragedy, it's most successful in a less dramatic way: in its portrayal of a small group of people over the course of many years, struggling to live their lives as best they can.

The DVD

Video

The Color Purple has received a very nice anamorphic widescreen transfer, presenting it in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The only flaws in an otherwise outstanding transfer are a small amount of noise, only visible in challenging scenes such as shots of the open sky, and a minor level of edge enhancement, again only visible in some shots.

The level of detail in the image is excellent, with a clean, richly textured picture at both foreground and background levels. Contrast is handled well throughout, from the many brightly-lit scenes to the few darker scenes. One of the best aspects of the transfer of The Color Purple is, appropriately enough, its handling of colors, as bright colors play an important thematic role in the film. Subtle shades of brown and gray, and subdued pastels, offer a nice backdrop to scenes with colorful, purple flowers or vivid red or yellow clothing; these bright colors are presented in the image cleanly and vividly.

The print is in pristine condition, with no scratches or flaws appearing anywhere in the print; the layer change is also handled extremely unobtrusively.

Audio

The Color Purple offers a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack that is solid overall but could have been a bit better. The clarity of sound is excellent, with both dialogue, music, and miscellaneous environmental effects presented clearly and in proper balance with each other.

The distribution of sound among the different channels of the soundtrack is the one area that could have been done better. The track is focused toward the front of the listening environment; the center channel and the forward right and left channels carry nearly everything, with very little use made of the rear side channels. The result is that the sound has good spatial separation, but it is not immersive, as the sound is nearly always in front of the viewer rather than all around. There are a few scenes in particular, like several in the jazz joint, that really could have been exceptional if the sound had been more immersive.

All in all, though, The Color Purple has a clean, well-done soundtrack that makes for an enjoyable listening experience. In addition to the 5.1 track, a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is also provided, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

The film itself occupies most of the first DVD of this two-DVD set; accompanying it are just trailers for the film and text notes on awards won by the film.

The second disc is devoted entirely to special features, in the form of a set of featurettes that total about 85 minutes of bonus content. All of the featurettes have been created specifically for the DVD, with the cast and crew giving retrospective views of the making of the film. "Conversations with the Ancestors: From Book to Screen" is a 26-minute interview with author Alice Walker on the process of writing the book, which drew extensively on her own family history, and the adaptation of the book for the film. "A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting" offers interviews with Steven Spielberg and many of the cast, recalling particularly significant or difficult moments in the making of the film. This featurette is the longest, at 28 minutes. "Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple" runs 23 minutes, and focuses on behind-the-scenes information from Spielberg as well as the producer and various members of production design and costuming departments. Lastly, a short, seven-minute piece called "The Color Purple: The Musical" takes a look at the musical numbers included in the film.

For miscellaneous bonus material, we get photo galleries of behind-the-scenes shots and the cast. No storyboards are included, though the DVD slipcase claims that there are. The DVD set lacks a few extras that I'd expect on a deluxe special edition, such as a commentary track or cast and crew biographies, but the making-of featurettes are well done and should please viewers. The featurettes offer an interesting look at the making of the movie, and are quite information-rich, using clips from the film fairly regularly but not to excess, and often with voiceovers.

I'm not particularly impressed with the packaging. Instead of a sturdy plastic keepcase, the two DVDs are in a cardboard fold-out case that is enclosed in a paper slipcase. If this is a cost-cutting measure, I would gladly pay a couple dollars more to get a more durable case.

Final thoughts

Despite not being perfect, The Color Purple has a great deal to offer: an interesting slice of life from rural Georgia; a generous handful of well-drawn, distinctive characters, from Celie herself to Sophie, Mister, and Shug; and a general air of solid craftsmanship in everything from acting to script and cinematography. The special edition DVD from Warner is very well done, with an extremely good anamorphic widescreen transfer, good sound, and a very nice set of special features. Those who already know that they like the film should feel confident about buying it straight away; for everyone else, it's recommended.

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