Steven Spielberg was already a superstar when he directed an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple" in 1985. But with such offerings as "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," as well as a couple of Indiana Jones films under his belt, his reputation was that of a special effects action-adventure director. The question Hollywood executives and Spielberg fans were asking was could he do justice to a straightforward, story-driven period piece about a black woman facing abuse and racism over a three-decade period in the American South.
The answer came quickly. Critics were positive, lots of viewers bought lots of tickets, and a different phase of Spielberg’s career was launched. Misses as well as hits followed, but among the "non-adventure" films this one led to were "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler’s List" and "Amistad."
With the upcoming Fathom Events re-issue of "The Color Purple" (theatrical screenings nationwide on Feb. 23), those who have never seen the alternately moving, disturbing and, during many moments, quite funny film on the big screen will have that opportunity. And, as I can comfortably affirm, watching it again now, after having seen it all those years ago, remains a rewarding experience.
Of course, it all starts with a great story, the one spun by Alice Walker, of young Celie living a tough life in early-20th century rural Georgia, being raised by a single father who sexually abuses her, then gives her up for marriage to a physically and emotionally abusive man and, in the process is torn away from her sister, the only person who showed her any love.
Spielberg had already become a strong cinematic storyteller by then, but this film, which relied on story and acting more than anything else, gave him a push, got him to step up a couple of rungs on that ladder. He knew where to frame his shots, and where to put people within them. He knew to use the best collaborators he could find - Allen Daviau’s cinematography looked into dark, smoky interiors that had sunlight pouring in through windows, but managed to keep everyone perfectly lit. He also took a gamble by hiring someone other than his go-to guy, John Williams, to compose the score. But Quincy Jones proved to be very much up to the task, filling the film with lush, stirring, melodic sounds.
Another risk - one that paid off handsomely - was in some of Spielberg’s acting choices. It was the first lead role for Danny Glover, playing the cruel and despicable Albert (also called Mister). And it was the first film role for Oprah Winfrey, as the initially feisty, eventually beleaguered Sofia, and for Whoopi Goldberg, who provides the spine for the film as Celie, a woman who, despite being victimized by men, finds true friendship and camaraderie with women, and has the film’s best and strongest character arc. Both Winfrey and Goldberg were Oscar-nominated for their roles.
The film’s emotional impact starts with its exploration of how some of the female characters endure all sorts of suffering, and it builds by showing how they deal with it. There’s much sadness, but there’s always at least a hint of a ray of hope somewhere on the horizon. Put another way, there is triumph to go along with tragedy.
In today’s politically charged Hollywood, someone like Steven Spielberg - you know, a white male director approaching 40 - would never be allowed to make a film about a black woman facing racial and sexual crises. I don’t know if his getting the job back then caused much controversy, but the film works well on every level. It’s hard-hitting, sympathetic, beautifully crafted, and it tells a great story. He was definitely the right choice at the time.
"The Color Purple" will screen nationwide on Feb. 23. For information about theater locations, visit https://www.fathomevents.com/events/tcm2020-the-color-purple-1985-35th-anniversary.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Color Purple"
Written by Menno Meyjes; directed by Steven Spielberg
With Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey