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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 17.39%
Average: 4.35%
Pretty Bad: 23.19%
Total Crap: 7.25%

2 reviews, 57 user ratings

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Color Purple, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Not as Bad as Spielberg's 'Always,' But Close"
2 stars

Kind of interesting that many criticized the Academy for not nominating Spielberg for Best Director being that the movie racked up eleven Oscar nominations being that if Spielberg's name weren't attached to it, it's doubtful if it would've received a third of the nominations.

Steven Spielberg is exactly the wrong director to bring Alice Walker's much-revered, best-selling novel The Color Purple to the screen, though after several box-office successes to his credit, it's doubtful anyone would say no to the titan who gave audiences Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the studios who bankrolled those projects stratospheric profits. But it isn't as if there wasn't a glaring warning sign beforehand: in his "Kick the Can" episode in 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie, which entailed elderly folk in a rest home rejuvenated into spunky youngsters, Spielberg poured on the golden lighting and syrupy music to such a ruinous degree that it was borderline-unwatchable. Here, in delivering what he hoped to be the ultimate African-American epic, he's sugarcoated just about every hard element in Walker's story and come up with something both affectless and offensive -- weakly shaped scenes that have little emotional resonance, and a mere airbrushing of unpleasantries that conform all too well to a box-office-friendly PG-13 rating. This isn't a valid interpretation of Walker but a facile commercialization of it. The Color Purple, both the novel and the movie, isn't about racism per se, but about how blacks mistreat blacks -- specifically, how black men mistreat their women. A caustic topic, to be sure, and if the studio hadn't insisted on something inoffensively mainstream they might've had a success if they'd have been willing to employ another director, like, say, the black independent moviemaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) or the white Australian Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), who would've had the temerity to burrow underneath the surface and set off all sorts of thematic and dramatic reverberations. As it is, throughout its one-hundred-fifty-three minutes, the movie has the length of an epic but not the contextual weight of one -- after the one-hour mark you're still waiting for Spielberg to start delivering the goods; we're forever waiting for the movie to kick itself out of second gear. The movie spans from 1906 to 1940, on a small Georgia farm owned by the widowed, chauvinist brute Albert, who has purchased the fourteen-year-old Celie from her stepfather, the same stepfather who's had incestuous relations with her and impregnated her twice and sold her babies who she's never seen again. With three children of his own, Albert slaps Celie around when she offers up so much as a single defiant word of her own; she's saddled with considerable household chores while putting up with Albert's wildly undisciplined offspring; and, of course, she has to cede to his insensitive sexual demands. Yes, she's been made a slave, bought and paid for.

Ever since Albert has "acquired" Celie, she's been separated from her dear sister Nettie, but Nettie shows up out of the blue one day and stays at the house, and it doesn't take long for Albert to put the moves on her -- he tries to rape her as she's walking to school, and the spunky Nettie assaults him with her books and is then kicked off the property. There's Albert's oldest boy Harpo, who brings home a woman he's impregnated and intends to marry; the physically imposing Sofia speaks her mind and takes guff from nobody, which embarrasses Harpo and enrages Albert. Surprisingly, it's Celie, not Albert, who advises Harpo to beat on Sofia to keep her in line (jealous of Sofia's brazenness?); and when Harpo enters the house the next day he's sporting a ripe shiner put there by you-know-who (he tells his father he fell off a roof). They do marry, but after four children Sofia leaves Harpo and winds up serving twelve years in prison for assaulting the town's white mayor whose white wife made unintended condescending remarks toward her. To add insult to injury, when she's released, gray-haired and beaten-down, she's made to be that same mayor's wife's servant. There's the voluptuous Shug, a knockout of a singer who performs in the shanty of a nightclub Harpo and a friend have opened up at the back of the family property. Albert is positively smitten and agog over her and cedes to her every demand when she stays over at the house, and Shug, who's used to men mooning over her, takes full advantage of the susceptible Albert -- she's made him her slave. (There's an embarrassing scene where Albert hopelessly tries cooking her a grand breakfast only to stop just shy of burning the kitchen down in the process. Why didn't he just get Celie to do it? Because, as the movie keeps pounding into us, all males are incompetent buffoons.) A gradual affectation and attraction grows between Celie and Shug, who first drunkenly tells Celie she's ugly but then does a complete one-eighty when she's sobered up; it's Shug who gives Celie her first passionate kiss and sexually awakens her, but this lesbian aspect is dropped just as soon as it's materialized. (Spielberg could show you the shark biting into Quint's torso but shies away from expressive physical love like a red-faced schoolboy.) Celie narrates the proceedings to us via voiceover: she reads the letters she sends to Nettie, who's made her way to Africa and has involved herself in fighting the repression of women's rights in that country; and Albert, to mentally torture Celie, forbids her near the mailbox and keeps the letters Nettie sends to her. Why doesn't Albert just destroy them? So Celie can eventually find them hoarded under a loose plank in the floor, and thus provide a lachrymose shed-the-tears moment, that's why.

Spielberg has said he was nervous making his first "adult" picture, and he needn't have been because in essence The Color Purple really isn't any more adult-oriented than E.T., with the two-dimensional characters and creaky relationships vastly inferior to those of the three main characters in Jaws. (We cared about the people on Quint's boat; imagine the characters in The Color Purple on that same boat, and you can see just how little we have invested in them.) From the opening-credits sequence where the title is unsubtly superimposed on a shot of the young Celie and Nettie playfully clapping hands in the midst of a field with luminous purple flowers, we know right away Spielberg has dedicated himself to churning out something of a storybook fable, and the artificiality of the beginning extends to the rest of the proceedings. The cinematographer, Allen Daviau, indulges in poster art: the overripe visual palette is unduly suited to this supposed harsh portrait of black rural life, which hasn't a tenth of the textured working-class milieu of Martin Ritt's also-Deep South-set Sounder. Couple this with Quincy Adams's lay-it-on-thick score that uncouthly accentuates every "heartfelt" moment, and you have a fifteen-million-dollar piece of hokum that rings false both visually and aurally -- and, yes, contextually. Sexism, Walker argues, is passed down through the generations just like racism and isn't inseparable from it (some black males want to believe they're superior to black females like some white males want to believe they're superior to black males), and when Albert's father, an unapologetic bitter man who's even more detestable than his son, pays a visit, we see the (obvious) connection being made, but the timidity on the parts of Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes render it so vague it comes off more like a mere afterthought. And of course it'd be necessary to see what sexism does to the soul of the person it infects, but Albert isn't allowed to have any semblances of depth. He's just a myopic-minded clod. But a clod, mind you, who eventually, and implausibly, becomes acquiescent to Celie's growing defiance -- there's a long holiday dinner-table scene with Celie making Albert the fool in front of his family that makes you suspect the projectionist switched up the reels. Why does Albert allow her to get away with this, we don't know. Don't blame Danny Glover, who invests Albert with as much truth as the role can hold. It should be a kick seeing Glover playing a real bastard after his superb turn as Sally Field's kindly field hand in Places from the Heart the year before, but he made a much more forceful impression in a quarter of the screen time earlier in the year as the corrupt cop in Witness.

In fact, most of the cast is just fine (though Adolph Caesar lays it on a bit thick as Albert's sour pappy: he's just recycling the same gruff-old-bastard routine from A Soldier's Story); that is, except Whoopi Goldberg, making her screen debut as Celie and contributing a performance of both ineptness and obviousness. She's the only one you catch Acting, italicizing each and every emotion for us as if she'd selected it from a limited-stocked shelf, with her mediocrity made even more apparent in that she takes over the role from the talented teenage actress Deserta Jackson, who plays the younger Celie with a vividness and lucidity that leaves Goldberg in the dust. And there are others in minor roles (Rae Dawn Chong and Laurence Fishburne) who've clearly been truncated in post-production. (What should have been not just truncated but eliminated altogether is the running sight gag of the hopeless Harpo falling through the roofs of the houses he's working on, as well as some inane business with the mayor's wife's terrible driving in town and the terrified citizens darting to get out of the way. So much for Spielberg going "adult" on us.) When Spielberg is at the top of his game he can stage individual scenes with as much color and verve than anybody else; he's a born entertainer who was destined to see through a camera lens a la Isaac Newton through a telescope, Jonas Salks through a microscope. Even in his calamitous 1941 there were a few inspired moments that almost made that ill-conceived disaster worth at least a matinee-showing ticket cost; and on a certain level it's preferable to The Color Purple because at least there's something going on in it that's indicative of an artist firing on all cylinders. With The Color Purple, Spielberg has slowed himself down, restrained his imagination, and frozen up his instincts. He can't even get the basics right -- the rhythms are off, the time-period segues are unbelievably clunky. He's being a "good boy," as if playing everything safe and serving up predictable moments is respecting Walker's novel; but for anyone who's read that mini-masterpiece, Walker's fertile imagination and keenness for narrative are anything but commonplace -- that's why it's as highly regarded as it is: you experience it as Walker cannily sets off all sorts of associations that you can't totally keep track of. In turn, you watch this diaphanous adaptation of it and are at a loss why something from one of America's top directors doesn't leave so much as a single thought going around your head. It evaporates from your mind as quickly as a high-school stoner's brainstorm for achieving world peace.

Read the Walker novel instead.

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originally posted: 03/25/14 11:47:32
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell great film packs a emotional punch 4 stars
6/11/10 Flathead King I found this film to be rather lacking in relation to its emotional impact. 3 stars
3/09/10 NiGanstah Soo Good But iT Wud Make Yhu Cry Havein A Babii At 14 Then 4 Yhur Daddy Ohh Noo Btw Nice... 5 stars
1/01/10 Dane Youssef Speilberg actually surpases himself. That it took home no Oscars is crime against humanity. 5 stars
10/20/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 4 stars
3/29/07 fools♫gold Iwon'tdoubtthegreatness of Schind'sList, SavinPrivRyan andthelike, butthisismyfavof Spiel's 5 stars
11/21/06 Lemonlana The film was great! It's my favorite and will always be. Reason because I can relat 5 stars
8/25/06 Agent Sands Deserving of all the praise. I mean, damn. Outstanding stuff. 5 stars
8/11/06 David Cohen Nowhere near as good as the book, but better than "Out Of Africa" (but then what isn't?) 4 stars
4/03/06 JRE it's not that bad, just dont get the extended version, the end is so WRONG!!! 4 stars
1/25/06 Tiffany Walters This movie was good. Not only did it expressed hatred towards women in a reality that stand 4 stars
7/02/05 Indrid Cold Hyper-political correctness saps the life out of it. But good acting and decent story. 3 stars
2/02/05 ralph a true movie expert 32 yrs old for old simpleminded housewives 2 stars
10/26/04 Marnessia I loved it! 5 stars
7/21/04 April Gupton makes me cry every time 5 stars
4/21/04 Careese A film about a Black woman's personal growth. 5 stars
2/05/04 I Would Watch this and see that irritating Whoopie Goldberg get slapped about. Nice one! 4 stars
1/08/04 jenny it was good to see the sruggles from back in the days 5 stars
12/19/03 Katiria Dos Santos Sad, meaningful & moving- excellent!!! 5 stars
11/30/03 john overly sentimental - feels like a Disney movie about incest- read the book! 2 stars
10/06/03 Darryl Should've won best picture! Wonderful. 5 stars
9/20/03 PimpyTdawg The Color purrple was the biggest waste of paper ! This book sucked ass! 1 stars
6/03/03 brentley Excellent movie! The reviewer is way off. Maybe her husband should beat her more often... 4 stars
5/23/03 Mr. Do Pfff.... kind a boring 3 stars
3/21/03 strawbarry23 I think this movie is very good and inspiring 5 stars
3/06/03 Crystal I think this movie was awesome and i highly disagree with Mrs. Norman Maine 5 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby Ice-cream version of Walker's landmark novel. Dramatically hazy and structurally weak. 2 stars
11/23/02 Kyle A Masterpiece. IMHO, of course. 5 stars
11/21/02 Tyreta This is my favorite movie of all time but of course the book is so much more interesting! 5 stars
4/26/02 Charles Tatum Nice, but so pretty to look at I kept waiting for the cast to burst into song 4 stars
4/19/02 Monster W. Kung Very fine movie. As usual, Mrs. Norman Maine's review is CRAP. 4 stars
3/06/02 Avery Brewton MY favorite movie 5 stars
3/02/02 Unagiboy I've never cried so much while watching a movie. The characters were strong. 5 stars
2/22/02 June Adeboye I want to thank Mr Spielberg for the courage to make movies with substance. 5 stars
11/19/01 Kim Phan Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
10/17/01 Justin King Some of the best character development from Spielberg or anyone. 5 stars
9/20/01 Chenise Mapes EXCELLANT movie and book it is a film that gets you thinking 5 stars
9/01/01 Butterbean A beautiful movie. I can never watch this without crying 5 stars
8/06/01 E-Funk Pretty heavy stuff for pre-Schindler's List Spielberg. Wonderful performances from all. 4 stars
7/27/01 Elvisfan Massa Spielberg, I'm powerful disappointed..great book, though 2 stars
6/24/01 Genghiz Beautiful, haunting and sad. Great music score. 5 stars
4/04/01 Lisa miller It was an Awesome movie 5 stars
2/22/01 Steve in Prague teen critic, this is a racist piece of crap 1 stars
2/14/01 Yolanda It has an obvious message & a marvelous cast!If it got you upset,it's cuz the truth hurts!! 5 stars
2/11/01 reasonablenough This movie is excellent, and those who were affended by it are ignorate to the way life was 5 stars
2/06/01 Frank Rizzo Bull sh#$ 1 stars
1/09/01 ~baby girl~ it was really good.. it was not racist!! i'm a white girl and it think that it just came 5 stars
9/13/00 Boy In The Designer Bubble Racist crap written by a lesbian. Nuff said. 1 stars
7/19/00 Chanayl Smith great movie 5 stars
3/23/00 Mary Sneary Fantastic journey into the life of a poor, souther, black women and the prejudice it has! 5 stars
10/27/99 Ralf Behet Call it cornball if you will. In terms of acting and craftsmanship it is superior. 4 stars
9/05/99 Weird Andy Alice Walker sucks. Whoopi sucks. Oprah sucks. This movie sucks beyond belief. 1 stars
7/17/99 soccer_mum Should have had an Oscar! I have seen it several times and it doesn't lose its punch. A++ 5 stars
5/21/99 iyu After Schindler's List, it's Spielberg's best. 5 stars
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  18-Dec-1985 (PG-13)

  02-Feb-1986 (15)

  02-Feb-1986 (M)

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